Why America’s Aging Casual-Dining Chains Are Quietly Building Fast-Casual Restaurants

The scramble to get millennial diners in the door

Holler & Dash looks like a garage that serves lunch, but it doesn’t look like a Cracker Barrel. Holler & Dash
Headshot of Robert Klara

Late in 2015, a new restaurant opened in Winter Park, Fla., a northern suburb of Orlando. It’s a big room with exposed ductwork, an open kitchen along one wall and a long bar skirting the other. The cooks there cut and smoke all the meats in house, and many of the ingredients are locally sourced. The patrons, not surprisingly, skew young, which also probably explains menu items like chicken waffles, Wonuts (a hybrid of waffles and donuts) and a pretzel braid appetizer that comes with a Samuel Adams cheese fondue. Out on the patio, you’ll find “Yappy Hour,” a happy hour with dogs invited, though you’ll probably have to wait for a table—weekends often see lines out the door.

The name of this establishment is TR Fire Grill, though regulars just call the place TR’s., and that’s a telling detail. TR isn’t just another folksy name common to the restaurant business, it stands for Tony Roma’s.

Remember Tony Roma’s? Actually, unless you’re a baby boomer, you probably don’t. The chain’s first restaurant opened in Miami in 1972 and popularized baby back ribs. Do Winter Park’s twenty-somethings sipping bourbon cocktails know that that old-guard eatery created and built this hipster den? No. “Most people don’t know,” says Tony Roma’s CMO Jim Rogers. And while Rogers is adamant that “we are comfortable with it being known that this is a concept developed by Tony Roma’s,” he stresses that “it’s a completely different concept,” and “we want it to live on its own.”

Tony Roma's TR Fire Grill has already won awards for its food.
Courtesy of Tony Roma's

Tony Roma’s is hardly alone. In the past few years, a number of long-established names in the casual-dining segment (and some in the steak and family-dining sectors, too) have been quietly developing and building new restaurant concepts, most of which come under the rubric of “fast-casual,” the hybrid category that combines the innovative, scratch-made dishes found in chef-driven restaurants with the convenience and quicker turnaround times of fast food.

Cracker Barrel, for example, now has four locations of a biscuit concept called Holler & Dash. Family-dining mainstay Denny’s is growing a scaled-down version of itself called The Den. “Classic American” dinner house the Daily Grill has a new restaurant called Public School. And steakhouse chain Texas Roadhouse has two locations of a lunch spot called Jaggers (no relation to Mick) now up and running in Indiana.

Time to get new customers

Why are these legacy dinner-house operators getting into fast casual only now? Fast casual itself is nothing new. (Panera Bread, a founding concept in the segment, has been around since 1981.) There are, of course, some factors that are highly specific to the restaurant industry that explain the trend, such as saving labor—fast-casual restaurants require less staffing than full-service ones do—and giving a company a new concept to sell to its larger franchisees.

But the primary reason is demographic. Much of casual dining’s old guard is, well, old. Tony Roma’s, Cracker Barrel and Denny’s—to name just three—have been around for 45, 48 and 64 years, respectively. And while aging restaurant chains don’t necessarily draw only aging diners (McDonald’s has been around since 1955, and the restaurants are full of kids), it’s also a fact that dinner-house chains aren’t exactly millennial magnets. A 2014 study from Morgan Stanley revealed that casual dining’s core customers are baby boomers between 50 and 68 years old.

“We are comfortable with it being known that [TR Fire Grill] is a concept developed by Tony Roma’s, [but] it’s a completely different concept. We want it to live on its own.”
Jim Rogers, CMO, Tony's Roma's

That’s presented established full-service chains with something of a mandate: Get younger diners into the house, or risk eventual extinction. But adding too many youthful updates to an older restaurant—be they in the décor or on the menu—risks confusing and alienating the base. “With a classic brand,” Rogers explains, “you have this fine line between what you can do that your current guests will accept and what you can do that will attract other guests.”

Many chains have found that creating a totally new restaurant is the wiser route.

“By launching brand-new concepts, these chains are appealing to new customer bases while continuing to take care of customers at their core brands,” said Lauren Hallow, concept analyst at restaurant consultancy Technomic. “Many younger consumers care more about food quality than getting waited on,” Hallow added, “so they see no need to go to a full-service restaurant and pay more for service when they can get the same-quality food at a lower price from a fast-casual restaurant.”

The Den, for example, is essentially a fast-casual version of a Denny’s. Favorites like pancakes and the Grand Slam Breakfast remain on the menu, but most of the entrees come in sandwich form—burgers, melts, and even a “Grand Slamwich” breakfast on a bun. Customers pick up their food at the counter and then seat themselves in a dining area that’s not designed for lingering, though the ceramic brick wainscoting and slatted wooden tables are clearly a cut above quick service. Most telling, the Den virtually shouts that it’s not a Denny’s: “Come in and see that this is not your dad’s diner,” says the website. “This is a place with a vibe.” It’s no accident that nearly all 17 locations of The Den are in or near colleges, and they’re all open late.

Holler at your boys

Cracker Barrrel Old Country Store was also looking for a fresh-faced crowd when it cut the ribbon on Holler & Dash, a fast-casual concept with offerings—an entire menu, in fact—centered on fresh-baked biscuits. “We developed Holler & Dash to leverage our brand strengths, more particularly our southern roots,” said Cracker Barrel spokesperson Janella Escobar.

Holler and Dash built its menu entirely around biscuits.
Courtesy of Cracker Barrel

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.