This year, casual restaurant chains have revamped their menus to attract more customers to new or expanded dining occasions. IHOP and Denny’s grew their all-day-breakfast offerings with more premium options, like Eggs Benedict at IHOP and Brioche French Toast at Denny’s. Chains like TGI Fridays and Bar Louie enhanced dinner menus with the addition of a Grilled & Sauced menu and Savory Selections, respectively.
These menu revamps are driving higher same-store sales. IHOP, for example, boasted a 2% uptick in same-stores sales during the third quarter after it rolled out its biggest menu revamp in its history in April.
Restaurant prices are rising faster than grocery prices, menu innovation is becoming a key strategy to keep consumers interested in dining out — especially younger generations looking for new and unique items. QSR menu prices were up 6.2% compared to full-service chains, which saw menu prices rise 4.3% in October, according to consumer price index data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This pricing difference gives casual brands the opportunity to not only leverage lower prices, but also their dining experiences, to compete with fast food and fast casual chains.
Check out how casual chains revamped their menus this year.
In November, Denny’s added nine items to its core menu across dayparts with the addition of French toast, salads and other items. As part of that revamp, the chain simplified its menu layout with fewer customizations and build-your-own categories, which made up a significant portion of the menu. Instead, it is now highlighting breakfast items and affordability.
Customization is still available, but these options are less emphasized on the menu. Because most of Denny’s restaurants are open 24/7, the chain wanted to provide premium options for its all-day breakfast, like Brioche French Toast.
The company previously invested $25 million to upgrade and optimize kitchen equipment, create new food items, improve efficiency and cut down on food waste. Part of its ongoing menu innovation reflects the addition of new kitchen technology, including new ovens that allow for more efficiency. Roughly 50 menu items are now prepared with the new ovens, including proteins, oven-baked entrees and desserts. During its first quarter, Denny’s used the ovens for things like oven-baked lasagna, mac n’ cheese, brisket, Skillets and a new dessert item that were well-received by customers.
Red Robin updated its menu in October as part of the company’s North Star Plan, a strategy meant to bolster sales and spark net unit growth. That plan includes new kitchen equipment, improvements to staffing and management and improvements to food quality.
During the summer, the company rolled out flat-top grills, which have yielded juicier burgers that create less food waste compared to the company’s old conveyor belt system. The chain also improved the presentation of its burgers, which are 20% bigger, by placing them on white plates instead of in its old red baskets. The company also added a revamped chicken sandwich to its menu.
In October, the chain added several other items to its menu, including Crispy Parmesan Brussels Sprouts, Tsunami Shrimp, Whiskey River BBQ Ribs, Garlic Parmesan Broccoli and its Burnin’ Love Burger. As part of this rollout, the chain also changed several ingredients by working with its existing suppliers to source higher-quality pickles, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, margarita mix and dessert toppings. Red Robin also updated some of its alcohol offerings. Red Robin’s VP of Culinary Brian Sullivan said his team touched about 85% of the menu in some fashion as part of the menu revamp.
In May, Chili’s updated its menu with revamped Chicken Crispers that it says are bigger, crispier, juicer and hand-battered. The chain offers its Crispers in four-, five- and six-count combos. The chain also added new burgers and a fresh lineup of margaritas. This revamp was part of the chain’s focus on its core menu items of margaritas, burgers, Chicken Crispers and Fajitas to help differentiate its menu from competitors.
At the end of the company’s Q1 2024, the chain was selling 40% more Crispers and decreased the menu item’s percentage of total food costs to 20% from 23%, CEO Kevin Hochman said during the company’s November earnings call.
The company also noted that guests are mixing more toward premium margaritas, and more guests are trading up from its value “3 for Me” menu to full-priced wings and Crispers, “which is improving both sales and margins,” Hochman said. The company will continue to work on its next round of “Core Four improvements” that will be shared in subsequent quarters.
TGI Fridays added several permanent menu items across multiple sections, including appetizers, salads and bowls, as part of its menu revamp in October. It also added a Grilled & Sauced menu during June, marking the biggest menu update since the 1990s. That menu initially had six grilled proteins and a range of nine sauces and rubs, and the chain plans to expand it with additional entrees in the future.
Fridays is bullish on virtual brands and added C3’s virtual brand Krispy Rice to 140 restaurants, with plans to add the items to 300 locations. The company expects this virtual brand to yield as much as $68.5 million in incremental revenue at 140 restaurants, and $163 million in 300 restaurants.
IHOP rolled out its biggest menu update to date in April, with items that spanned across all dayparts. The chain added items like Eggs Benedicts, Sweet & Savory Crepes, Ultimate Steakburger upgrades, Fish and Shrimp, fresh salads and various non-alcoholic beverages, like Strawberry Lemonade Splashers. It followed up this menu upgrade with the addition of biscuits during the summer. These moves led to the chain’s current breakfast and brunch menu, which helped drive comp sales during the third quarter so same-store sales rose 2%.
Sister company Applebee’s is in the midst of its own menu revamp, with more details to come next year, the brand said. The culinary department has been testing as many as 200 concepts that would not only expand categories, but also add new ones.
Bar Louie added a Savory Selections dinner in August with five new dinner entrees to all 47 of its corporate locations. The permanent menu items are Citrus Grilled Salmon, Monterey Chicken, Cajun Salmon Shrimp, New Orleans Chicken & Shrimp Pasta and a Beer Battered Fish Sandwich. The chain already has a popular happy hour menu, and the new menu was meant to provide menu items that will get the happy hour crowd to stay longer.
“We identified that in order to keep our guests from one daypart to the next we needed to curate a menu that more specifically met their dinnertime needs,” the company wrote in an email to Restaurant Dive. “Our new savory selections lineup allows our guests the opportunity to enjoy a variety of more traditional sit-down dinner entrées. With a martini in our logo, we are synonymous for our drink offerings, however with our new savory selections we are focused and committed on offering our guests a dining experience that exceeds their expectations.”