Casual dining chains lost close to 7.1M visitors between 2009 and 2013 as fast-casual superstars such as Panera Bread, Chipotle, Noodles, and Pei Wei stole traffic.
The response from the sector has been to push heavily on the promotional lever in a margin-biting gambit. The latest is a $10 all-you-can-eat appetizer price deal from the struggling TGI Friday's chain.
Restaurant Finance Monitor thinks the strategy is ill-fated, noting Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD +1.9%) and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers (RRGB +0.5%) have done well by pushing the distinct experience of a visit to their restaurants - instead of hyping endless discounts.
The fast casual segment of the restaurant industry continues to create turmoil for the casual dining portion as improved quality and nimble service proves hard for consumers to ignore.
A smashing 13% gain in comp sales by Chipotle (CMG -4.2%) in Q1 demonstrates the ability of the fast-casual superstars (NDLS, PNRA) to continue to carve out market share even as the retail sector shows slow growth.
Restaurants analyst think the issue might run deeper than just a consumer unimpressed by an oversupply of undifferentiated dine-in brands. Regional chains and independent concepts have a significant culinary innovation advantage that could prove difficult for the larger casual dining chains to overcome.
The restaurant sector is on watch after a pre-earnings warning from Darden Restaurants (DRI) and a harsh downgrade on Wendy's (WEN) sets a negative tone. The picture being painted for 2013 is starting to get pretty consistent - margin pain and soft traffic trends. Other things to watch in 2013 for the sector: 1) The impact of higher payroll taxes. 2) The coming costs of the Affordable Care Act. 3) The push to raise the minimum wage. 4) Which chains can succeed in China and India?