Casual dining chains hunger for change

At the same time, casual dining's food quality and innovation stagnated, even as its prices kept creeping up, he says.

Few are making a more concerted effort to improve the food than Ruby Tuesday.

Four years ago, its flimsy, paper menu focused on finger foods and $6.99 burgers. Earlier this year, it replaced that with a stiffer cardboard menu featuring luxurious photos of its $13.99 New Orleans seafood entree (now served with brown rice instead of white) and upgraded, prime burgers starting at a hefty $9.49.

Ruby Tuesday is gambling big time that quality ultimately will trump price.

When the economic storm clouds clear, says Beall, "Consumers will focus less on price, price, price and more on food quality."

•Improve service. Slow service and discourteous staff have given casual dining a black eye.

Lengthy waits for meals "don't reflect how Americans eat," says Kyle Kieper, vice president at FRCH Design, a consulting firm.

Chili's is trying to knock 15 minutes off the typical 45-minute lunch for customers who want to save time, says Brooks. It's testing new, handheld BlackBerry-like devices that directly connect the front desk and servers to the kitchen, says Brooks.

It's also testing new ways to screen potential employees. Instead of managers hiring by instinct, it's testing applicants with skill questions. As a result, the turnover rate is down 25%.

Ruby Tuesday's staff no longer wears casual shirts and jeans but long, black aprons. "It's more professional looking," says Beall.

Nickole and Ron Ketterer are more concerned about how servers behave than what they wear. The couple haven't been back to Outback Steakhouse in more than two years since a server and a manager very publicly argued with them about how steak was cooked. That's too bad, because the couple from Fort Thomas, Ky., used to be regular customers.

•Spiff up stores. "We have an entire industry of 20-year-old locations," says Marc Buehler, CEO of Lone Star Steakhouse. "They need more than a coat of paint."

Even Lone Star, which has had a rough financial year, is slowly spiffing up. This year, it's remodeling six of its 153 stores. Out with the beat-up concrete floors and in with polished wood. Out with fading tablecloths, in with oak tables. More locations will follow.

Ruby Tuesday, meanwhile, has redesigned all of its company-owned restaurants over the past six months. The dark, knickknack décor has been replaced by contemporary designs and lighter colors.

•Get kid-friendly. Families are a big part of casual dining's business, and for many parents, what matters most is how happy their hungry kids are.

Parissa and Derek Eggleston of Millersville, Md., have mostly kissed off casual dining now that they have a 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.

And when they do go out, says Parissa, "We hold our breath."

Looking for casual dining spots to be more kid-friendly, she wonders if they could install kid playgrounds. Or maybe they could lend kids handheld video games at the same time parents are handed those electronic pagers.

The last time they went to Chili's, her son dumped the salt and pepper shakers into his water glass while awaiting dinner.

One small victory: She stopped him before the sugar went, too.

TELL US: Have you cut back on restaurant dining? Why or why not?

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