Finding the casual dining fault-lines
5 January, 2010
PF Changs: two hours. Cheesecake Factory: an hour and a quarter. Those were the waiting times facing customers on the Sunday after Christmas in Rancho Mirage in southern California. Who said casual dining in the US was dead?
Of course, that’s not the whole story.
The parking lot at Applebees on the way was hardly full and we walked straight into the Flemings Steakhouse next door to PF Changs.
Some premium mid-market brands like Changs and Cheesecake Factory are obviously retaining their attraction – and loyalty, as few (unlike us) were walking away. But what makes it worth hanging around to eat at some chains, but not others?
Flemings is the Outback group’s upmarket offer, positioning itself as a prime steakhouse and wine bar at the top of the casual dining spectrum – certainly above Changs and Cheesecake.
When I first encountered the brand a few years back, it really had the “wow factor” – as I reported at the time. The service was some of the best I’d encountered, even in the States, punctuated by the swift, efficient and attentive way he handled errors. It made you feel special.
That is the most obvious element to have disappeared – something I noticed at Easter and reinforced this visit. There are fewer servers and more busboys looking after guests and the knowledge, particularly about wine, just isn’t there. It is not that it is bad, but simply doesn’t deliver on the promise, or at least the memory of what it was. The food and service were fine; just not outstanding. The brand has lost its polish.
Of course, its price point could also be a factor – it has never been cheap. But the prix fixe menu and the Sunday prime rib dinner (the States’ version of Sunday roast beef) offer good value, so it’s not just trading down by the public.
PF Changs and Cheesecake both have value, but also enough pizzazz to maintain loyalty. Flemings appears to have fallen into that dangerous trap of economising to the point where it could now be damaging its core brand values – a lesson for all chain operators.
One upscale business that consistently delivers on the promise, through top-notch service, is Hillstone, the private company that runs the much-lauded Houston’s brand.
Stepping into the Santa Monica branch of Houston’s at 2.30pm on the Monday after our Fleming’s experience, there were people still waiting for a bar seat.
The staff are immaculately turned out – yes, young and attractive – but also professional and well-tutored. It’s a great experience – and the food delivers too, if only a sandwich.
There may be little new in the US these days when it comes to new ideas, but when it comes to exceptional service and experience it can still produce it – at least some of the time. The takeaway from all this is that to survive recession, it’s not good enough just to focus on value – the experience is crucial too.