Casual dining is in the throes of a midlife crisis.
A quarter-century ago, consumers feasted on fried appetizers, unlimited breadsticks and big desserts at Applebee’s, Olive Garden and Chili’s. Today, many Americans are trading those restaurants in for cheaper, faster fare or splurging a bit for a trendier experience.
Midpriced, sit-down restaurants — known as casual dining in the industry — have seen on average about 2 percent fewer customer visits each year since 2008. That translates into a total drop of almost 600 million annual visits, to 6.4 billion in 2012.
“They’ve been around quite a while and ... many of them have not stayed as relevant in meeting consumers’ wants and needs of today," said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant analyst with research company NPD Group.
The industry is trying to reinvent itself with lower-priced meals that are quicker and more healthful. Olive Garden, for example, said last week it plans to speed up its lunch service, jump on culinary trends more quickly, attract younger diners with more technology and lure back lower-income customers with good deals.
The economy has played a major role in slowing sales. American budgets are taking one hit after another — most recently from increased payroll taxes and rising gas prices.