Casual dining driven by income, convenience, health

by Staff
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CHICAGO — Casual dining restaurants are the fastest-growing and most prevalent sector among full-service operations, market researcher Technomic said in its "2007 Top 100 Casual Dining Report."

Yet consumer lifestyles and demands are shaping how casual dining looks, partly as a result of growing income divergence among Americans.

The report takes note of how the affluent are increasing their disposable income and the rest of the population is facing stagnating income and more income pressures from the rising cost of health care, health insurance, food and fuel. This is leading to a split in the causal dining segment with some consumers going down to fast-casual limited-service restaurants and some consumers moving to upscale casual dining alternatives.

"If there’s any one prevailing theme we see throughout casual dining, it’s the demand for convenience and value," said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president of Technomic Information Services. "This is the common denominator that has driven much of the growth in the segment via successful curbside takeout and catering programs."

Mr. Tristano said takeout sales at casual-dining chains grew about 10% annually during the last three years.

The desire for healthful offerings is also a leading factor pressuring casual dining restaurants with Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Chili’s working to cut trans fat during the last year.

The fastest growing casual dining restaurant in 2006 was Cheeseburger in Paradise, with 62% growth in sales compared with the previous year. Other chains that made the top-10 list of fastest growing casual dining included Famous Dave’s, Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., according to Technomic.

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