Raising the Bar: Casual Dining Bar Business Trends

trCasual Dining's Blueprint for Success Redraws the Lounge

Guy walks into a bar – but how do you get him to come back again and bring his friends? That's no joke for casual restaurants. The bar area is the focus of redesigns and prototypes for many casual-dining chains. Lounges now take the lead in key efforts to refresh concepts, attract new customers, drive traffic and build sales. Although usually part of a top-to-bottom restaurant revamp, the bar area is integral to design strategy; it is often the heart of the newly minted restaurant.

Operators see the bar as a generator of social energy, radiating good cheer throughout the restaurant. To that end, architects are moving the bar to center stage – opening up sight lines, pumping up the vibe with state-of-the-art audiovisual systems, employing bar shapes more conducive to conversation and adding dispensing equipment to tap into beverage trends. Above all, architects are using the bar to keep restaurants flexible, enabling them to accommodate more dining occasions.

Why this bar-oriented blueprint? Chalk it up to tough economic times, a struggle for concept differentiation, shifting consumer demographics and new daypart opportunities. Thanks in part to more affordable price points, casual dining continues to hold its own against the full-service segment (showing 3.1 percent growth in 2011 versus 2.8 percent for full service, according to Technomic). Casual restaurants lagged behind their peers in limited service (up 3.7 percent), however. One weapon the casual segment can wield in this war is the lounge bar; most fast-food joints don't serve alcohol – not yet anyway.

Architect Tonics.

"Five years or so ago, casual restaurants got into trouble by offering dining experiences that were not highly differentiated. Now chains realize that's not going to work anymore," explains Christian Davies, executive creative director, Americas, for Fitch Worldwide, a global design firm with a number of restaurant clients.

"Consumers still see a lot of sameness between the conventional varied-menu casual concepts," adds Mary Chapman, director of product innovation at Technomic. "Redesign is a way for those casual chains to attract new customers."

"The bar can be part of concept differentiation if it is a unique proposition," adds Davies. "It should be such an integral part of the operation that customers get that the minute they walk in the door."

Getting new customers in the door, as well as retaining repeaters, is crucial. The bar is key here, too, especially in attracting the coveted millennial crowd. It's very important for restaurants to serve alcohol, say 20 percent of millennials, according to a Technomic study on consumer behavior and attitudes. Size matters, too. In Technomic's casual-dining report, 19 percent of all consumers responded that a large bar area is important or very important to them at a traditional casual-dining restaurant; 27 percent identified that as a key factor in upscale casual establishments. "Attracting customers with high-margin options like the bar is a good way toward success," notes Chapman.

Central Attraction.

"With our new prototype we are amplifying elements guests like, hoping that will attract people who don't currently visit Buffalo Wild Wings and bring our current guests back more frequently," says Bill Ferris, director of store design for Buffalo Wild Wings. The 840-unit Minneapolis-based chain has a new prototype underway in two pilot stores, one opened in Cincinnati late last year and another early this year in the San Diego market.

"The idea behind the design is a play off of the sports stadium – not to replicate the stadium experience but to capture that same energy," explains Ferris. It's a good match with the brand's sports-oriented persona. A new logo introduced last summer tweaks the iconic winged buffalo image and replaces the old tagline "Grill & Bar" with "Wings. Beer. Sports."

The bar is central to the new layout. Buffalo Wild Wings' current design is a rectangular space split between dining and bar; in contrast, the new prototype is a square format where the bar occupies the center, slightly to the rear. "We've moved the bar to a more central location. Everything is focused around that core of social energy," says Ferris.

"If you set a bar in the center of the space, it becomes the heart and soul of the environment, and everything revolves around it from a visual and energy-level standpoint," says Davies.

"The trend seems to be incorporating the bar within the restaurant, rather than relegating it and its customers to some smoky corner," adds Chapman. She believes that setup is more appealing to women, who don't necessarily want to hang out in a bar, especially if they are alone, and to those all-important millennials. "Incorporated all in one space, the bar is a way to spread some buzz, energy and life to the restaurant part of the business," Chapman notes.

Power Generator.

The new Applebee’s prototype design includes a sleeker, slightly larger bar area  with strategically placed TV screens, varied seating styles and a dramatically  lit back bar.

"We realized that the bar can be a hub, generating energy, [which is] valuable even when you are running a restaurant," says Jay McDermott, vice president of development for Applebee's. The Kansas City, Kan.-based casual-dining chain launched a remodel program called Connections and a new prototype. Connections is the first remodel involving the exterior, with new awnings and signage and some work around the front entrance. "That signaled change to the guest," declares McDermott, and more change awaited inside. The 3-D artifacts were taken off the walls, for a cleaner, sleeker look. Tiffany-style lamps also got the heave, replaced by smaller yet still colorful lighting fixtures.

To give the bar cleaner, more contemporary lines, the old oak canopies were removed, which also improved sight lines. Strong visuals were built into a greatly enlarged backbar (as much as 50 percent bigger than Applebee's current standard), incorporating TVs and uplighting the liquor display. "The idea behind the backbar was to develop a focal point that would create energy and resonate out into the restaurant," explains Brian Tepen, director of architecture and design. "Lighting makes the bottles on the backbar glow, creating a jewel in the center of the restaurant."

At the end of 2012, about 51 percent of Applebee's franchise system was displaying the new image. "Operators are investing the money, getting the sales rise, seeing a return on their investment. If anything, franchisees have been accelerating the pace at which they have been remodeling, which has been a plus for us all," says McDermott.

The new Applebee's prototype, now in testing, incorporates many lessons learned from the Connections redesign along with a few refinements. The bar got a little bigger, but it has been moved away from dead center in the building to just off center. "That creates energy flowing out into the restaurant but also allows some quiet spaces at the opposite end," explains Tepen. In a previous incarnation from five or six years ago (known as the Encore remodel), the bar was pushed up to the front entrance. Meant to be a lounge, it ended up being more of a waiting area, creating too much congestion in the traffic flow. The new prototype corrects that. After a solid test period and a few tweaks, the unit serves as a blueprint for Applebee's new builds.

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