Restaurant Development & Design

JAN-FEB 2019

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3 8 • r e s t a u r a n t d e v e l o p m e n t + d e s i g n • J A N U A R Y / F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 9 The State of Casual Dining The Melting Pot "The necessary pace of innovation has never been faster than it is today in casual and polished-casual dining," says Mike Lester, president of The Melting Pot Res- taurants Inc., a 43-year-old Front Burner brand. The Melting Pot's pace of innovation has been extremely rapid over the past three to five years, Lester asserts. Like many in its segment, the Melting Pot team has grappled with how to update and enhance its concept and broaden its appeal to that changed consumer base while staying true to its DNA and to long-time fans. A new prototype rolled out last fall, along with new menu and merchan- dising initiatives, takes major steps in that direction. Focused on giving guests reasons to visit more often and for more than just dinner or special occasions, it's open, contemporary and offers multiple social, interactive experiences. It takes ideal unit size down — from the previous 5,500 to 6,000 square feet to 4,500 to 5,000 square feet — and it's menu includes more sharable happy hour items, chef-prepared, "no-pot-required" entrees and sandwich selections that travel well and can be prepared quickly. To attract more users throughout the day, the prototype incorporates more and larger windows and tables that can be moved to accommodate different group sizes and occasions. And its iconic "Lover's Lane" area, while still intimate and romantic, is now more up-front and less secluded than in the past, a nod to changing consumer preferences toward more social, energetic experiences. Lester says this iteration of the brand gives guests what they've told the chain they want. "We hadn't kept up with the needs of our consumers," he says. "We hadn't updated our spaces to be as cool and as innovative as our experience is. That's what we're doing today. We'll continue to learn, tweak and innovate along the way, but early guest response tells us we're hitting the nail right on the head." doing the same thing again, and they have to look elsewhere for innovation," Tristano says. In particular, that means more menu innovation and better use of customer data to drive menu decisions. It means savvy marketing, with creative promotions and LTOs that meet food- savvy customers' demands for crave- worthy classics with a twist while also delivering the value they expect from casual dining. It means offering better experi- ences in right-sized footprints with lighter, more contemporary interiors, open kitchens, vibrant bars and outdoor patios that suit different types of dining and social experiences in one place. And it means serious investment in technology, customer-facing and mobile solutions as well as behind-the-scenes technologies that help operators more effectively control costs. Labor continues to present the big- gest cost challenge in full-service casual dining. Datassential research shows that more than two in three (64 percent) op- erators in the segment peg labor costs as their top business challenge. "They'll continue to look to tech- nology to help in that area," Conaghan predicts. "Kiosks and tablets at the tables are welcome now by guests and they not only help to bring labor costs down, they also help to increase aver- age checks by making it easy for cus- tomers to add on to their orders without waiting for a server to come by." It's too early to tell if reimaging, tech enhancements and other recent moves within casual dining will lead to a sustained comeback for the segment, or to a hearty re-embrace for some of its most iconic brands. Downs still overshadow ups. But long-overdue investments in innovation, quality and experimentation appear to be paying off. Led by brands with the vision, intelli- gence and resources to give consumers what they want most from casual dining today, the segment just might get its mojo back. + Concept: Polished-casual fondue HQ: Tampa, Fla. Founded: 1975 Units: 115+ Melting Pot's new design highlights an open cheese and chocolate kitchen that showcases the chain's high-quality ingredients and adds a layer to the fondue-centric brand's experience for guests. Image courtesy of The Melting Pot Restaurants Inc.

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