CHICAGO — The full-service restaurant segment is struggling, and casual dining has faced the brunt of the challenges. The total unit count for the top 500 dining chains declined 1.5% last year, according to Technomic, but some turnaround efforts are starting to gain traction and renew operators’ hope for the industry.

“Some brands are starting to see positive signs at the unit level,” said Charles Winship, senior research analyst at Technomic. “As the segment’s turnaround continues, efforts will turn to cultivating sustainable, long-term growth strategies that avoid the issues that led to casual dining’s downturn to begin with, such as weak value propositions, an oversupply of restaurants and failing to evolve with consumers’ dining habits.”

One way restaurants are battling these issues is by focusing on “memorable away-from-home experiences,” Technomic said, which appeals to those who go out to eat for events such as birthday and anniversaries. Fifty-one per cent of upscale casual dining restaurant consumers said they visit to celebrate special occasions.

Future of FSR chart

Another way to drive traffic is with off-premise offerings, Technomic said, but not at the detriment of dine-in. While off-premise orders are on the rise, dining in still dominates in the full-service restaurant segment. In traditional casual dining establishments, 15% order takeout or delivery while 85% still prefer eating in the restaurant, Technomic said. Additionally, 53% said they visit traditional casual dining restaurants at least once a month.

“The segment isn’t out of the woods,” Technomic said. “But increased emphasis on value, off-premise sales, alcohol and memorable away-from-home experiences is helping the category move in the right direction.”