In Theory of Evolution, Chuck Winship offered a simple reason that contributed to Norman Brinker’s decision to join Chili’s: demographics.
“He’d been with Steak and Ale and Bennigan’s. Bennigan’s had been highly levered on the liquor mix, they didn’t really make much money on food and the liquor mix was changing, demographics were changing. And Norman saw that this young cohort was going to get married and have kids, so he wanted to be more into family casual dining...”
Norman Brinker founded Steak and Ale in 1966, and ten years later started Bennigan’s. As Winship noted, Bennigan’s was heavy into alcohol, which meant a younger target audience. But in the early 1980s, Brinker saw an emerging opportunity: families. Why is that? Well, in the early 1980s, that massive generational cohort known as the baby boomers were in their twenties and thirties. The market for families was about to be huge as this generation aged.
The move was a success, and casual-dining brands largely followed the baby boomer generation, boosting their appeal among families over time.
Then, boomers started to dine out less, and the industry became focused on millennials, who developed a fondness for fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle. And as legacy casual-dining brand started to struggle, millennials took some blame.
So often, trends are defined by in-the-moment factors: cauliflower is popping up everywhere; plant-based imitation meat is on a meteoric rise; third-party delivery is the new convenience meal.
It’s certainly worth operators' time to analyze current trends, but it’s also important to step back and consider the longer-term trends that will ultimately define new restaurant opportunities. For example, what does increasing income inequality mean for restaurants? How about a more diverse population? An aging population? A declining birth rate? We may not know the answers now, but whoever figures it out could be pretty well off. After all, I’ve never heard anyone wonder if these are fads.