The start of casual dining is often dated to the founding of Steak & Ale in 1966. More than that, Steak & Ale is also credited with a few other restaurant inventions such as the salad bar as well as servers introducing themselves to guests. So, even though Steak & Ale went bankrupt and closed all remaining units in 2008, the innovations that once propelled the brand lived on.
To say the casual-dining industry is now challenged is an understatement. The segment has had a tough decade with problems ranging from an oversupply of restaurants to shifts in consumer preference for fast casuals and delivery. And then came the shut down of dining rooms due to COVID-19. This has forced a rethinking of full-service restaurant operations, not to mention the future of the segment itself. Now more than ever, brands need to redefine casual dining.
Can Steak & Ale be one of those brands?
Legendary Restaurant Brands has announced that Steak & Ale is returning with a new unit in Mexico. The idea is to rejuvenate the brand, including some COVID-19-friendly policies like bringing the salad bar to the table, but also to go back to the basics and highlight the classic fare that made the brand a revolutionary success. It remains to be seen what all this entails, but we're excited to see. Perhaps we'll be in Cancun soon.
A common thought is that casual-dining brands need to up their game for off-premise occasions including more curbside pickup, space dedicated to takeout and delivery orders and potentially even drive-thrus. While this is certainly true, let’s not forget the opportunity with dine in. It was a large market pre-coronavirus, and it’s clear that it offers incremental opportunities versus off-premise. It’s a different experience. The service can be engaging, the food fresher. We know that consumers miss dining out. But we also know that casual-dining needed a refresh even before the pandemic. And perhaps a back-to-basics approach is what's needed.
Steak & Ale was founded as an affordable steak chain. It was an upscale experience at a low price point. It was higher quality than fast food but more approachable than fine dining, perfect for an everyday occasion. However, consumers might argue that this no longer represents their perception of casual dining. In fact, it sounds more like fast casuals, which had a similar approach as the early casual-dining brands: higher quality than fast food but more convenient than full-service restaurants. It's almost as though the casual-dining segment, with some notable exceptions like Texas Roadhouse, has lost its niche and needs to find a new one.
All this to say that the casual-dining segment needs to recapture its essence. So, it's quite timely that Steak & Ale, the brand that started it all, is making a comeback.