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Denny’s created a fast-casual restaurant brand called The Den, which caters to younger customers. Source: Google Images 

Rather than making significant changes to their existing brand in order to attract younger customers, many long-time casual dining restaurants are choosing to open separate new-concept fast-casual restaurants. This allows restaurants chains to “[appeal] to new customer bases while continuing to take care of customers at their core brands,” according to Lauren Hollow from Technomic in a recent Adweek article.

According to a Morgan Stanley study from 2014, casual dining establishments’ core patrons are baby boomers between 50 and 68 years of age. In an effort to attract younger audiences and avoid eventually becoming irrelevant, many long-standing casual dining companies are looking to the “fast-casual with a vibe” dining sector for the solution. Generally, younger consumers care more about the quality of their food than receiving full-service – especially when they can often get quality food at a lower price by foregoing the full-service concept.

In one such example, Denny’s created its own fast-casual restaurant brand, The Den by Denny’s. The Den serves some favorite breakfast items from the Denny’s menu, but primarily focuses on simpler, sandwich-like items for most of its menu. Customers order and pick up their food at a counter and choose a table to sit and eat at. Consistent with the idea of catering to a younger generation of consumers, the brand’s website even tells potential guests to “come in and see that this is not your dad’s diner.” Most of the restaurants are also located near college campuses.

In another example, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store has opened a fast-casual restaurant called Holler & Dash. The new-concept restaurant has a menu full of items centered around its biscuits, which Cracker Barrel believes is one of its brand strengths, along with its Southern roots. In addition to its rural-modern décor and mason jar glasses, by serving cold-brew coffee and from-scratch food that contains local ingredients, its clear that the Old Country Store’s new concept restaurant caters to younger customers – especially Millennials.

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TR Fire Grill – Tony Roma’s first fast-casual, new-concept restaurant in Winter Park, FL – is already proving to be a success story for the company. Source: Google Images

Another long-established brand, Tony Roma’s, opened a fast-casual restaurant in an attempt to stay relevant and attract new patrons. With only 20 Tony Roma’s locations left in the U.S., the brand was only experiencing growth in international markets, so it decided to try something new to attract U.S. customers – enter TR Fire Grill. The new restaurant emphasizes its fresh, locally sourced ingredients and craft beverages. 15 months after opening its first location in Winter Park, Florida, TR Fire-Grill, the company’s new-concept restaurant, has already won several awards and is even attracting attention from potential franchisees. All of this is exciting to Jim Rogers, the company’s CMO, as it represents promising possibilities of domestic growth once again. In fact, the restaurant has very recently opened a second location in Waikiki, Hawaii.

While many long-established restaurant brands have been successful in attracting younger customers with new-concept fast-casual restaurants, the AdWeek article reminds us that this is not a sure-to-succeed strategy. On many occasions, long-established restaurants have tried to capture new audiences with the fast casual concept and have failed – such as Taco Bell’s U.S. Taco and Urban Taproom and Wienerschnitzel’s Two Madres Mexican eatery. Regardless, it’s clear that the fast casual concept is growing amongst the younger diners and many companies are embracing the idea.

From a marketing management perspective, here are some questions to consider:

  • Research Taco Bell and Wienerschnitzel’s attempts at fast-casual dining. What do you think might have caused them to fail, as opposed to the other three successful examples that were discussed?
  • What are some differences between Baby Boomers and Millennials that explain their differing dining expectations?
  • In your opinion, should a brand’s fast-casual counterpart be able to be easily identified as related to the original long-established brand, such as in The Den’s case, or not, such as in Holler & Dash’s case? Why?