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Texas Roadhouse is America's Brand of the Year

June 17, 2019
Steak and a side at Texas Roadhouse restaurant.

Casual dining: The heartbeat of the American consumer

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Texas Roadhouse
Casual dining: The heartbeat of the American consumer

If there’s one thing the micro-chain movement taught us about casual dining, it’s that restaurants can’t bank checks entirely on brand equity. This generation of customers is less forgiving and sticky. They’re not as much brand loyal as product and lifestyle loyal. They hold chains accountable across the marketing and operational spectrum, everything from sourcing to mission statements, community involvement, seamless ordering, design, and pretty much every other element inside and outside a brand’s personality.

But what these legacy chains can do, however, is put that scale behind disruptive industry trends. While you could tap delivery, off-premises in general, mobile access, and technology advancements as opportunity fire starters, they’re also headwinds. All restaurants want to drive frequency, of course, yet how many can invest significant marketing spend in a value campaign? And it’s not just about competing on price. Casual players with strong guest affinity have an opportunity to court guests via loyalty. They have the data wealth and segmentation tools to target customers with comeback deals and other incentives independents typically don’t. The ability to go well beyond the email list and Facebook updates, if leveraged smartly. Does this help cover some of the ground chains lose to local spots in regards to younger consumers?

Brinker International CEO Wyman Roberts said of Chili’s in May, “there's a consistent pattern of overperformance by larger concepts versus smaller concepts. So the independents and the smaller concepts really now, for a while, have been losing share to the larger concepts, and we continue to see that as probably something that will play itself out into the future.”

What he was referring to was Chili’s ability to lean into its marketing spend and promote a value construct in ways regional or single-unit concepts couldn’t. Chili’s moved away from traditional marketing—bringing new news to consumers—to a more guest-centric model that focuses on embedded traits that don’t change by the promotional calendar.

There’s also the rise of at-home dining to consider (according to industry data, 28 percent of consumers stay at home more versus two years ago) and how equity-heavy brands can compete. Dining out of home represents an $870 billion slice of the restaurant industry. Casual-dining amounts to roughly $86 billion of that competitive set, according to NPD.

How does this affect the big brands? Firstly, there’s the ability to strike massive deals with aggregators, as Chili’s just did with DoorDash. There’s also the notion of restaurant models themselves. Just glancing at some legacy players, like IHOP, Buffalo Wild Wings, Denny’s, and Outback, you see innovation in the footprint. Most chain restaurateurs would agree, if they could rewind time with a crystal ball in the desk drawer, they would take another look at how restaurants were thought out from a functional perspective. A dedicated pick-up element. The ability to integrate POS technology with third-party delivery, etc.

Bloomin’ Brands, in one example, has a relocation strategy that moved 50 Outbacks since 2012 (14 last year). Those units are witnessing a 30 percent sales lift. Before relocation, they averaged $2.9 million AUVs. After: $4.1 million. Bloomin’ said there’s potential for at least 50 more relocations (11 in 2019).

Outback is currently testing multiple design prototypes that modernize the brand and expand the off-premises room to handle higher order volumes.

Buffalo Wild Wings’ restaurant of the future showcases a takeout area enclosed separately with its own dedicated entrance. The space features a sauce bottle wall and TVs for guests. Outside there are designated parking spots for off-premises orders.

However you look at it, these coming months will be interesting for all sit-down restaurants. Casual dining, like fast food, has often represented the heartbeat of the American consumer. It’s why the segment struggled mightily a few years back when its innovation lagged a shifting guest preference. And it’s why some brands have managed to climb back into positive territory while others still search for fresh ways to grab share.

So how do they all stack up: The Harris Poll, in its 31st edition, released its 2019 EquiTrend Brands of Year. It’s based on a sample of 45,541 US consumers ages 15 and over surveyed online, in English, in the month of January. A brand’s Equity is determined by a calculation of Familiarity, Quality and Purchase Consideration. Brand of the Year is determined by a simple ranking of brands.

Each respondent was asked to rate a total of 40 randomly selected brands. Each brand received approximately 1,000 ratings. Data was weighted to be representative of the entire U.S. population of consumers ages 15 and over based on age by sex, education, race/ethnicity, region, income, and data from respondents ages 18 and over were also weighted for their propensity to be online.

Here’s how the top chains in casual dining ranked.

1. Texas Roadhouse

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Texas Roadhouse
1. Texas Roadhouse

The 561-unit steakhouse broke a tie with The Cheesecake Factory to claim No. 1 billing. In this case, guest rankings aligned with performance. Texas Roadhouse remains one of the steadiest traffic and sales drivers in the restaurant business, although it’s waged a fierce war with labor costs in recent quarters. The size of the issue is a byproduct of Texas Roadhouse’s success. One of the reasons costs are so high is because the chain puts stock in fully staffing restaurants. And it does so to better serve guests. It’s simply an expensive proposition. In the first quarter, Texas Roadhouse’s same-store sales jumped 5.2 percent at company-run stores, including 2.6 percent traffic growth, and 4.3 percent at franchised units (468 locations are corporate). The other 2.6 percent came from an increase in average check (Texas Roadhouse has taken price lately to offset the labor issues).

But the growth in labor hours was greater than the growth in traffic. Labor as a percentage of total sales hiked 118 basis points, year-over-year, to 32.7 percent, and labor dollars per store week rose 8.2 percent. That came from wage and inflation of about 5.2 percent and growth in hours of roughly 3.1 percent. The company also saw its net income decline 8 percent to $50.4 million and restaurant margin drop more than a percentage point and a quarter to 17.9 percent. Operating income lowered 7 percent as a result.

Again, this was mostly due to labor cost inflation. President Scott Colosi said during April’s review the chain would weather the storm by “remaining committed to and focused on the fundamentals that have got us to where we are today.” That’s typically how Texas Roadhouse speaks and it’s why it has remained so steady. But getting there requires a good deal of labor, and it’s a challenging dilemma. One thing that helps, Colosi said, is Texas Roadhouse’s managing partner structure. Since they have a vested interesting in managing labor spend to protect sales long-term, they’re more wiling to endure short-term pain.

Over the last decade, Texas Roadhouse has moved from about $3.6 million per restaurant to $5.2 million on average. And it’s tracking toward $6 million.

That just takes more workers. And Texas Roadhouse is working on improving turnover, which is in the high 120s.

It continues to refine the employee-value proposition as well, with culture, market-level pay, and improving scheduling and erasing some stressors by fully staffing units during peak hours.

“So we don’t know if our turnover would’ve been 140 percent if we weren’t doing some of these things with staffing to enable us to have more scheduling flexibility,” Colosi said. “Talking to our folks more about what they need to do a better job. All those kinds of things.”

2. Olive Garden

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Olive Garden
2. Olive Garden

Once more, the rankings reflect recent results. Darden’s flagship posted its 18th consecutive period of same-store sales growth in the third quarter that ended February 24. Total sales upped 5.3 percent as same-store sales grew 4.3 percent. Traffic climbed 0.1 percent despite a heavy shift away from promotions.

On that kicker note, Darden CEO Gene Lee choose to soften a heavily incentive-laced strategy because Olive Garden was humming along. This gave the 860-unit chain a lever it could pull, if needed, to ignite top-line sales and transactions down the road. And it also allowed Olive Garden to focus on sales profitability and work on the embedded deals it built into its menu architecture, like Lunch Duos, Early Dinner Duos, and Cucina Mia!

Olive Garden’s comps in Q3 were fueled by a check average increase of 4.2 percent. But how that unfolded tells a bigger story. It was comprised of just 1.8 percent pricing. The rest was a 2.4 percent menu mix. As Lee explained during the company’s review, this means Olive Garden drove results via consumer preference, which is a great place to be. Guests reacted positively to dishes with more protein, and reduced incentives had a positive impact on mix. This everyday value direction, over a value-seeker one, served the chain well.

To put into context the position of strength Olive Garden is operating from, even with reduced discounting, it still sailed industry benchmarks this past quarter. Excluding Darden, the industry’s total sales rose 2.1 percent in Q3; same-store sales lifted 0.8 percent; and industry traffic declined 1 percent.

Olive Garden’s customer is strong, Lee said. They’re upgrading in the promotional constructs, And since the added mix is coming from entrees, not the add-on sales side, the brand continues to improve throughput.

It results in a tough-to-rival value proposition for Olive Garden. And it works for the core consumer on multiple fronts—price, abundance, and Olive Garden's brand promise.

“The consumer continues to utilize the full menu in Olive Garden and has surprisingly, in some ways, bought up into the promotions, and it's really been a confluence of a lot of small individual things coming together that has drove the mix,” Lee said.

3. The Cheesecake Factory

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The Cheesecake Factory
3. The Cheesecake Factory

Like Texas Roadhouse, the polished brand is facing rising labor costs. But also akin to the steakhouse brand, it’s willing to approach the issue through a long-term lens. At the end of 2019, Forbes named The Cheesecake Factory one of the “Best Companies to Work For,” for the sixth year in a row. The company is using the momentum to fuel employee programs and improve operations for employees. President David Gordon said staff retention stabilized midway through last year and has continued. “We believe our staffing success is contributing to the consistent trend in our guest satisfaction scores as industry research continues to confirm the importance of service to the guest experience and the overall restaurant's performance,” he said.

Gordon did not go into specifics about the restaurant’s retention rates, but did note that management retention is at an all-time-low, hovering around 1-2 percent. And it’s all aiding performance. The brand’s same-store sales lifted 1.3 percent during the first quarter. Total revenue for the quarter was $599.5 million.

Labor costs increased about 40 basis points compared to this time last year, taking up 36.2 percent of The Cheesecake Factory’s revenue.

The brand, like other chains in the sector, is growing off-premises so rapidly it had distorted average check somewhat. The segment grew 2 percent from 14–16 percent in Q1, with delivery making up 30 percent. Delivery and digital check totals are higher on average than in-store checks. Customers are also spending more on dessert when they place an online order than if they were to dine in the restaurant. Online sales of desserts made up between 17-20 percent of online sales.

4. LongHorn Steakhouse

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flickr: Mike Mozart
4. LongHorn Steakhouse

LongHorn has benefited as much from Darden’s “back-to-basics” operating philosophy as any chain in its portfolio. Perhaps more. The brand grew total sales 6.7 percent last quarter, driven by 2.9 percent growth from new restaurant and same-store sales of 3.8 percent—the 24th consecutive period of positive gains. Guest counts improved 0.5 percent.

LongHorn was brought into Darden’s portfolio in 2007 when the company, which also owned Red Lobster at the time, purchased RARE Hospitality International Inc. for about $1.2 billion plus debt. RARE operated LongHorn and the higher-end Capital Grille. The deal propelled Darden full-force into the steakhouse business after the closure and sale of its struggling Smokey Bones barbecue restaurants. There were 287 LongHorn restaurants and 28 Capital Grille restaurants at the time. Lee was RARE's president and chief operating officer.

The year before the sale, RARE's profit dropped about 24 percent to $39.4 million on $986.9 million in revenue. In Q2 of 2007, its profit decreased 24 percent to $10.2 million on $269.2 million in revenue.

Darden only had one negative year of comp sales with LongHorn—at the beginning during its integration process. It’s been smooth running since. Lee often credits this to improved execution through simplified operations, and a unique culture that lifts internal engagement. Heading into the year, LongHorn cut its more than 30 percent so it could focus on better performance and steak preparation. “Thanks to several efforts designed to simplify responsibilities across the restaurant teams, they once again achieved a record high steaks growth correctly scored during the quarter,” Lee said.

LongHorn introduced a “Grill Master Legends” program last quarter designed to celebrate culinary employees who have grilled more than a million steaks. Additionally, the brand ran a “You Can’t Fake Steak” campaign that struck a chord, Lee said.

CFO Rick Cardenas said LongHorn’s investments in food and menu mix has led to more higher-end steak sales.”

“Also during the quarter, LongHorn received the best practices award from the [TDn2K’s] People Report, which recognizes the best workplace cultures in casual dining,” Lee added. “LongHorn continues to find unique ways to drive higher levels of passion and pride among its team members.”

5. Outback Steakhouse

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Outback Steakhouse
5. Outback Steakhouse

Outback’s turnaround has been one of the industry’s top headlines over the past couple of years. In the summer of 2017, the chain saw its traffic trends start to strengthen. It jumped 130 basis points from the first quarter to the second, which marked the highest result in two years. Although still negative at 0.8 percent, it compared rather nicely to the prior year’s 5.9 percent decline. And it kicked off a six-period run of positive results.

While that ended at negative 0.5 percent in the first quarter, Outback remains in enviable standing. The reason being it measured against a heavier discounted quarter and still managed to push the top line forward with same-store sales growth of 3.5 percent—the ninth consecutive period of positive results. This came as the chain slashed traditional discounting by 17 percent relative to last year. When you consider that trade-off, 755-unit Outback’s ability to lose just 0.5 percent in traffic, year-over-year against 2018’s best quarter, was an impressive metric.

One of the bigger changes for Outback during this time has been its ability to drive sales through long-term avenues. It’s enjoyed better ROI on marketing as its loyalty platform, Dine Rewards, expanded beyond 8.5 million people. The brand reduced advertising spend by $25 million as it turned away from mass marketing to what executives called “mass personalization.”  Guest-centric communications instead of broad, promotional incentives that attempt to reach everyone. The benefits of these changes showed up in Q1 in the form of increased average check, Outback said, which rose 4 percent.

Interestingly, CEO Dave Deno revealed during the review, Bloomin’ has poured north of $50 million into the customer experience over the past three years. That breaks down to $30 million in food quality (portion enhancements and reducing complexity), and $20 million in service, training, and labor.

Furthermore, Outback spent upward of $400 million in remodels to contemporize the brand and improve curb appeal. It plans to update 300 additional units in the next three years. “Customers have taken notice as we have seen strengthening brand health measures,” Deno said.

6. IHOP

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IHOP
6. IHOP

Among the chains ranking high with guests, a few trends are emerging. Like Outback, 1,697-unit IHOP witnessed a big lift from off-premises. The segment jumped 54 percent in the first quarter and traffic outside the four walls boomed roughly 40 percent. That’s a dramatic change from a year ago when those figures were 31 and 22 percent, respectively. Overall, the company’s same-store sales upped 1.2 percent, marking five straight quarters of gains. In its own category—family dining—IHOP outpaced competitors, based on comp sales, by more than 150 basis points, according to Black Box data.

IHOP, which surpassed sister brand Applebee’s (1,689) as the nation’s largest casual brand, has pushed deep into this digital arena. The chain launched a new, fully integrated online ordering system via an improved website and mobile app. The goal, it said, to create an omnichannel experience with additional touchpoints for the consumer.

Accessibility is critical given the muted traffic most restaurants face in an overcrowded market.

This is important for IHOP since it’s average check for online orders clocks 31 percent higher than call-ins. In 2018, online orders were $21.20. Call-in orders were $16.22. There’s clearly reason to invest in a better mobile ordering experience. The company’s off-premises business grew to 9 percent of total sales last quarter. That’s nearly double (5 percent) what it was this time in 2018. IHOP said it could get into the low teens over the next few years. This past quarter, IHOP also rebranded and relaunched its Pancake Revolution program as “MyHop.” The primary objective to increase membership and entice guests to come back for more visits. In Q1, the company boosted overall membership by about 9 percent.

Along with the digital changes, IHOP’s marketing (IHOb) and store designs continue to refresh. IHOP franchisees completed 35 remodels to the “Rise N’ Shine” program in Q1. The company expects to finish roughly 220 this year. When combined with new restaurant openings since the program’s inception, more than 1,100 units, or about 65 percent of the domestic fleet, have been updated.

This all fits, too. The latest iteration, Rise ‘N Shine 2.0, nods to the digital changes and opportunities. They’re equipped with new technology, such as a no-wait tool that provides guests with more accurate times. There’s also server tablets to improve speed and accuracy and wireless credit card devices that are brought to the table.

7. Cracker Barrel

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Cracker Barrel
7. Cracker Barrel

It’s been an interesting few quarters for the down-home brand. Cracker Barrel ended fiscal 2018 with choppy results, posting negative same-store sales of 0.4 percent to go along with a 3.5 percent drop in traffic. What raised alarm as well was the fact that comps decelerated from Q3’s 1.5 percent increase and Cracker Barrel hit the 0.4 percent decline even with a 3.1 percent increase in average check.

In response, the brand set off on a series of fixes. Mainly, they involved customer experience and service improvements, and working on daily value deals that resonated with consumers. CEO Sandy Cochran admitted the company’s menu wasn’t emphasizing its value proposition, the variety wasn’t meeting demand, and there was a decline in guest experience metrics that showed a stray from the service and hospitality traits foundational to the Cracker Barrel brand.

The 650-unit chain has made clear progress this year to date. Cracker Barrel reported same-store sales growth of 1.3 percent in the third quarter of fiscal 2019, which ended May 3. Traffic dropped 1.8 percent, year-over-year. The chain has now put together three straight positive periods on the top line: 1.4 percent in Q1, 3.8 percent in Q2, and now 1.3 percent in Q3.

While it hasn’t landed just yet from a results perspective, Cracker Barrel’s fried chicken launch is one of its more exciting menu programs in recent memory. The bone-in chicken was tested last fall to work out operational kinks, equipment configurations, and measure guest reaction. Cracker Barrel’s first official offering arrived in May as Southern Fried Chicken, which celebrated the company’s 50th anniversary. The deal was half a chicken (breast, thigh, leg, and wing) served with two country sides, and homemade buttermilk biscuits or corn muffins for $10.79. Cracker Barrel also delivers the dish to tables with bear-shaped bottles of honey.

Cracker Barrel spent years developing the breading’s spice and flour blends and had to redesign kitchens in more than 650 restaurants to accommodate the equipment. It retrained employees, of which Cracker Barrel has north of 70,000, as well.

The most prominent change was the actual frying system, Cochran said. Cracker Barrel had never offered bone-in chicken. There’s just Homestyle Chicken on Sundays.

In addition to the summer menu launch, Cracker Barrel developed a Southern Fried Chicken Picnic Box for to-go orders. It includes 12 pieces of chicken, two sides, and biscuits, as well as a half-gallon of tea or lemonade. Desserts can be added for extra. The option runs $33.99.

Cochran said the product has mostly been a dine-in option so far but it’s set up to capture growing off-premises demand. As a percent of sales, off-premises jumped 110 basis points in Q3 versus the prior-year quarter at Cracker Barrel. Third-party delivery coverage is live in nearly 350 locations with another 100 units on deck for 2019.

As KFC and chains across America have proved, it’s a product you could build a to-go platform around.

8. Maggiano's Little Italy

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Maggiano's Little Italy
8. Maggiano's Little Italy

Brinker’s Italian brand is no stranger to consumer rankings. Market Force Information tapped Maggiano’s as America’s favorite restaurant chain in January (No. 2 was Texas Roadhouse). Also, for the seventh straight year, AllergyEats ranked the brand atop its list of the most allergy-friendly large chains (50 or more locations) in the country.

Maggiano’s is riding a solid sales run as well. Third-quarter results of 0.4 percent represented six straight quarters of flat or positive gains (just Q1 2019 was flat), and seven of the last eight. Q2, at 1.3 percent, was also Maggiano’s first quarter of positive traffic in nearly three years (it was flat in Q3).

Maggiano’s has remained successful, chief concept officer Larry Konecny told FSR earlier in the year, because it authentic approach. All of the changes, from tech to delivery, follow that compass. “It can’t just be a strategy. It has to be a part of your brand essence. So anytime we do any menu innovation or change any design element, or any cue that the guest notices, we have to be aware of who we are and what we stand for,” he said.

In Q2, Maggiano’s set more than 100 sales records in the quarter, including a record-breaking $3 million day across the brand. It’s 22-year-old Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, store also achieved the busiest day for a single restaurant ever at nearly $116,000.

Additionally, Maggiano’s debuted its first non-traditional location since being founded on the corners of Clark Street and Grand Avenue in Chicago in1991. The Dallas Fort Worth International Airport unit, a partnership with HMSHost and Java Star Inc, opened in November and seats 225 guests in two dining rooms divided by a bar area. HMSHost, which runs 17 Chili’s spinoffs, Chili’s Too, in airports nationwide, branded the concept with “M” signage and put it in Terminal C, DFW’s busiest section.

Also Maggiano’s first franchise, said the venue has been a hit so far, the company said. And later in 2019, Brinker will bring a second airport Maggiano’s to life.

9. Red Robin

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Red Robin
9. Red Robin

These are wild times for Red Robin. Last week, activist investor Vintage Capital, which holds about 12 percent of the burger brand’s stock, offered to buy Red Robin’s remaining shares for $461.4 million. The investor expressed concerns on a few different levels, including Red Robin’s ability to find a suitable replacement for CEO Denny Marie Post, who retired in April. Red Robin issued a statement saying it’s been open throughout the process and retained The Elliott Group to aid search efforts. Regardless of what happens on that front, Red Robin has some ground to cover.

It announced May 30 the impending closure of 10 underperforming restaurants—seven of which were enclosed mall units. These stores had average-unit volumes of $1.8 million and totaled nearly $1 million in pretax operating losses in the first quarter of fiscal 2019. The gap in the company’s mall and non-mall performance has been well documented lately. The closures will leave Red Robin’s 572-unit footprint with 66 mall stores. Traffic for mall restaurants underperformed corporate units by roughly 300 basis points last quarter.

Overall, traffic fell 5.5 percent in Q1 as same-store sales declined 3.3 percent. Net income sank 85.4 percent, year-over-year, to $639,000. Revenues of $409.87 million compared to last year’s $421.52 million figure.

Red Robin is also working with The Cypress Group on a refranchising initiative targeting about 100 locations for sale. At quarter’s end, 483 of the company’s 579 locations were corporate run.

Currently, the brand is being run by interim CEO Pattye Moore, a director at Red Robin since 2007 and its board chair for the past nine years. She also previously served as board member and president at Sonic Corp.    

As for what’s writing the chain’s hopeful comeback, it’s a multi-pronged, operations-focused strategy. COO Guy Constant said during the company’s review that staffing, particularly at the general manager level, was target No. 1. He said Red Robin enjoyed reductions in its hourly manager and GM turnover from Q4 to Q1. The company brought manager staffing levels to 96.8 percent.

The company is also working on lowering ticket times and reducing walkways, an issue that flashed last summer. Red Robin tried to cut two positions and put table-clearing duties on servers’ plates. The host position was asked to handle not just dine-in guests, but carryout orders as well. This resulted in peak times overwhelming the floor and leading to weekend walkway increases of about 85 percent, year-over-year, last August.

Constant said Red Robin made progress and overall satisfaction scores improved throughout this past quarter, reversing a trend that carried throughout all of last year and hit a low point at the end of Q4. He said walkways are currently down 4.2 percent versus the prior-year period and “wait times are shorter, guest complaints on cleanliness and wait times have declined meaningfully, and guests have told us that they've seen marked improvements in problem resolution when there is an issue.”

“We know we can improve the overall guest experience, shorten wait times, reduce walkaways, have cleaner dining rooms, and effectively identify and resolve potential issues by continuously getting our managers on the dining room floor and at the host stand during peak hours,” Constant said.

10. California Pizza Kitchen

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California Pizza Kitchen
10. California Pizza Kitchen

Golden Gate Capital scooped up the pizza chain in 2011 for about $470 million. The company had put itself up for sale in April 2010 after receiving interest from several buyout firms.

Founded in 1985, CPK has grown to more than 250 restaurants in 11 countries and U.S. territories. Known for its flavor combinations, the chain launched a summer menu in late May. It includes previous fan favorites such as the California Fields Salad and Strawberry Shortcake, Sparkling Watermelon-Lime, and alcoholic Sparkling Tropical Haven cocktail made with coconut rum, pineapple, and raspberry.

Additionally, CPK introduced a veggie-forward spin of its Original BBQ Chicken Pizza with the BBQ Heirloom Carrot Flatbread. The chain has offered a variety of vegetarian additions in the past year, including Spicy Buffalo and Sticky Asian Cauliflower small plates, protein- and veggie-packed Power Bowls, and industry-first Cauliflower Pizza Crust introduced.

11. Red Lobster

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Red Lobster
11. Red Lobster

The 700-plus-unit brand is about a year removed from announcing its partnership with The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program. To that point, since becoming an independent company in 2014, Red Lobster had opened 22 new restaurants. It enjoyed an eventful 50th year in business, launching a new menu highlighting tasting plates. It also made some significant kitchen upgrades, including new equipment, like lobster & crab pots and sauté stations, and introduced fresh technology to ensure all components of each order finishes cooking at the same time. This $51 million investment in new equipment and back-of-house technology, Red Lobster said, allowed the chain to improve the quality of its food and pace of meal.

Last January, the company also unveiled its Seafood with Standards commitment as part of a 50th anniversary celebration. It promised to support best fishing and farming practices with eco-certifications in seafood sourcing around the world. Among the requirements:

Traceable … to a known and trusted source

Sustainable … only sourced from trusted suppliers who follow industry best practices

Responsible … by following Total Allowable Catch (TAC) and other regulatory efforts that manage fish populations, such as fishing quotas, and avoiding serving at-risk species

Red Lobster has always been keyed into seafood sourcing and what that transparency means to its loyal base. It’s a founding member of the Global Aquaculture Alliance—an international non-government organization dedicated to advocacy, education, and leadership in responsible aquaculture. Red Lobster helped develop “Best Aquaculture Practices” certification and was among the first to require all suppliers to follow those standards for shrimp, salmon, tilapia, and other seafood.

“At Red Lobster, we know where every piece of seafood that we serve in our restaurants comes from,” CEO Kim Lopdrup told FSR, simply.

Red Lobster introduced a new lunch menu on May 27.

New Endless Soup, Salad and Biscuits features Cheddar Bay Biscuits with choice of soup and salad starting at $8.99.

New Summer Power Bowl is served with quinoa rice, edamame, seasonal berries, sliced almonds and a lemon olive oil vinaigrette starting at $9.99.

New Dragon Power Bowl is served with spicy soy-ginger sauce drizzled over quinoa rice and fresh broccoli starting at $9.99.

12. Buffalo Wild Wings

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Buffalo Wild Wings
12. Buffalo Wild Wings

From a newly redesigned prototype to fresh marketing and a revamped leadership team, this is not the same wing chain Inspire Brands purchased for $2.9 billion last February. At least one franchisee’s results suggest that’s a good thing. Diversified Restaurant Holdings—one of the largest Buffalo Wild Wings operators, posted same-store sales gains of 4.2 percent in the first quarter driven by a 4.9 percent boost in traffic. It marked the second straight period of positive gains. More notable, though, DRH hadn’t turned in a positive quarterly comps figure in three years before the run.

DRH’s CEO David Burke credited a renewed focus on guest experience, loyalty attachment, and the continued development of delivery, as well as “the early benefits of the new marketing, media, and latest brand enhancing initiatives around March Madness.” Read more about the comeback efforts here.

Some noticeable changes lately include menu adds, like the twin patty All-American Cheeseburger and Ultimate Nachos, as well as enhanced serving options (no more paper boards and plastic cups, but aluminum trays, craft paper liners, and stainless steel cups).

“There were significant number of new branding elements rolled out in March that enhanced our image, value perception, and guest experience,” Burke added.

This included a new menu design, hipper server uniforms, and enhancements to the bar program. Buffalo Wild Wings unveiled classic cocktails, like old fashioneds, Moscow Mules, and Mojitos, served in new, proper glassware. Burke said the changes were “truly a [big] change from our legacy.”

The rest of the best

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Dave & Buster's
The rest of the best

Brands ranked below the category average in alphabetical order: Applebee’s, Bahama Breeze, Benihana, BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, Bonefish Grill, Carrabba's Italian Grill, Chili’s Grill & Bar, Dave & Buster’s, Denny’s, P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Romano's Macaroni Grill and Italian Restaurant, Ruby Tuesday, Shoney’s, TGI Fridays​.