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Nation's Restaurant News: Dinner decline stumps restaurants

In The News

Nation's Restaurant News: Dinner decline stumps restaurants

Published: 27 Sep 2017

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It’s the meal consumers are least likely to skip, and the one they are most likely to spend the most money on, but the dinner daypart at restaurants isn’t doing so well.

Market research firm The NPD Group said part of the problem is that many operators are focusing too much on price and not enough on meeting consumers’ needs at dinner.

“It’s a very important meal occasion -- not just to operators, but to the consumer,” NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs said. “It’s almost never skipped, but it’s been on the decline for a long time.”

According to NPD, in the year ended June 2017, per capita dinner visits declined the most since 2013 (57 per capita visits, down from 62). The quick-service segment fared the best at dinner compared with other segments, but per capita visits were still flat for the last two years.

The demographic group most responsible for the decline at dinner was consumers ages 35 to 54, NPD found. In the year ended June 2017, the group, which accounts for nearly a third of the population, made 60 per capita visits to restaurants, down from 67 in the year ended June 2015.

But while many assume the reason for the decline is all about price, NPD research found that price isn’t the key driver of dinner decisions.

“Do consumers like family meal deals, specials? Of course they do,” Riggs said. “But it’s not all about that.”

So why aren't restaurants getting more dinner business?

Each generation has different drivers for restaurant meals, NPD found. For example, the top decision drivers for restaurant meals for Millennials are a treat or reward for themselves or someone else, and because it’s not worth cooking for only one or two people. Meanwhile, top decision drivers for Generation X are that they didn't have anything to cook or eat at home, and because its more fun to eat out than at home. 

“They can get more of that business if they do it right,” Riggs said.

At a time when consumers can get just about any food they crave fast, with just a few swipes and taps, “doing it right” — getting consumers to dine in — requires a more compelling value proposition. Executives from Dickey’s Barbecue Pit and Sonic Drive-In shared ways they have driven visits to their restaurants.

Dickey’s aims to offer reasons to visit  

Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, a 70-year-old, family-owned chain with more than 550 locations, has been making major changes to meet the evolving needs of customers, whether they want to eat in the restaurant’s dining room or at home.

“We’re living in an Amazon world. They want it when they want it, how they want it,” said Laura Rae Dickey, CEO of Dickey’s. “They are still having dinner with groups, families -- just not as often in our restaurants, but with our food.” 

To drive more customers to have Dickey’s food in restaurants, the chain is offering a number of incentives, from tailgate dinner packages that feed 12 people to a forthcoming kids-eat-free dinner offer through January.

But perhaps the biggest push has come in the form of Dickey’s recent redesign. A year and a half ago, the chain opened up the kitchen and added glass-front meat walk-ins to all locations so customers can see their meat being chosen, chopped on the block, rubbed, put in the barbecue pit and plated.

“We wanted to push that experience out, pull them into the kitchen,” said Rae Dickey. “It’s a reason to visit Dickey’s.”

While Rae Dickey said the changes have prompted an increase in engagement and frequency of dine-in visits at lunch, they haven't yet had an impact on dinner, but she’s optimistic that they will soon.

Sonic offers daily promotions 

Sonic Drive-In, the Oklahoma City-based quick-service chain with 3,557 units, is offering a plethora of promotions designed to drive visits nearly every day of the week. 

“Our dinner daypart is an integral part of our strategy, and we are focusing our promotions on quality, one-of-a-kind offerings at an incredible price,” said Lori Abou Habib, vice president and chief marketing officer at Sonic Drive-In.

To encourage families to drop by for dinner on Tuesdays, the chain hosts Family Night, with half-price cheeseburgers from 5 p.m. to closing time. Originally a local promotion in select markets, Family Night is now a national promotion through December.

Thursday nights are Wing Night in America, when diners can get buy-one-get-one-free boneless wings from 5 p.m. to closing time every Thursday night through Oct. 22.  

On Sundays, Sonic offers a $5 Chicken Dinner, a combination meal deal including a box of chicken strips, tots, Texas toast and a handmade onion ring with a choice of gravy and a drink, priced at $5.

Sonic’s newest promotion, which launched on Sept. 25, is the Sonic Carhop Classic, featuring a cheeseburger with a quarter pound of 100-percent beef, fresh tomatoes, chopped onions and crinkle-cut pickles on a toasted, bakery-quality bun. The burger is served with Sonic’s handmade onion rings and a drink, and priced at $2.99. 

“Our guests have loved our classic cheeseburger and handmade onion rings for more than 60 years,” Abou Habib said. “Offering these iconic items at an incredible value has proven to be a winning combination that keeps bringing our guests back.”