Consumer dining trends are changing. Are you staying relevant?

According to the latest NRN-MillerPulse survey, quick-service restaurants have outperformed full-service dining in at least 29 of the last 30 months. The takeaway? Today's consumer sees sit-down dinners as a splurge – not just of money, but of time. Speedier fast-casual chains like Qdoba and Panera appeal to time-strapped consumers, but it's about more than just counting seconds. Increasingly health-conscious, the American diner wants their food not only to be fast, but to be healthier and taste better, too. Trends are changing, and established brands that aren't changing with them are going down. Is your restaurant poised to remain relevant?

Value doesn't just mean price

In the past, most chains' response to an increasingly crowded market was to discount away in a race to the bottom. A focus on price over quality have left many bargain-centric restaurants squeezing every last cent out of their own shrinking profit margins. These days, fast food chains like McDonald's and Wendy's are struggling to reverse the damage done by dollar menu mania. Much of their strategy seems to be in adding healthier, fresher-looking items in order to attract health-conscious diners. Instead of engaging in price wars, chains should have been paying more attention to what consumers were actually wanting.

If convenience is king, quality is queen

Quick-service concepts have an obvious advantage over their full-service brethren when it comes to speed and price, but a third factor – quality – is becoming ever more important. According to a recent report from Mintel, more than one third of Americans are cutting back on red meat for health reasons, while the NPD Group reports that the same percentage of Americans are avoiding gluten in their diets. Fresher, healthier flavors are in demand, and restaurants everywhere are revamping their menus to accommodate. KFC is taking things one step further, retraining consumers to see the brand as a healthy choice by launching a new fast-casual concept. "KFC eleven" will be chock full of healthier flatbreads and rice bowls.

Technology to the rescue?

In the quest to stay ahead of these trends, more companies are turning to high-tech solutions. As Panera's popularity has skyrocketed, customers have been walking away from long lines caused by overwhelmed employees. The company is combatting this by shifting phone orders to an automated web system, freeing up employees to deal with in-house customers. Some casual dining chains, most notably Chili's and Applebees, are embracing a new wave: tabletop devices designed to allow guests to order and pay at the table. They're hoping the increased efficiency will help them reclaim a segment of the lunch crowd lost to fast-casual concepts. Whatever your solution, capturing that perfect trinity of value pricing, fast service, and healthy menu options is critical to a restaurant's survival.

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