Struggling restaurant chains try cheap eats to lure diners

The nation's struggling full-service restaurant chains seem to have found only one sure-fire way to lure folks in the door: cheap eats.

Chili's is about to roll out meals for less than $7. Texas Roadhouse is offering $7.99 meals. T.G.I. Friday's has $9.99 entrees. Outback has rolled out some entrees at $9.95. Even upscale Morton's Steakhouse has a value deal.

Almost every chain in the $183 billion full-service dining industry is waving a meal deal that beckons customers with low-ball prices — with the hope folks spend more once they come in. Times are so tough that some deals fall within a few dollars of fast food.

"The fact that you can eat a full-service meal for under $10 is incredible," says Christopher Muller, hospitality professor at University of Central Florida. "You couldn't even eat this cheaply in 1992."

Chains have little choice. Cash-strapped consumers are holding back on eating out. Same-store sales have been falling for 14 months and were down 3.6% in February, says researcher Knapp-Track.

"People are mourning the death of their money," explains restaurant consultant Malcolm Knapp.

Here's who's doing what:

• Chili's. On April 6, the chain will offer a "10 meals for under $7" deal. Officials declined to discuss details until closer to rollout.

• T.G.I. Friday's. This month, Friday's began a promotion featuring 10 entrees priced at $9.99 — in some cases a 29% price cut. "We need to offer deep value to drive traffic," says Andrew Jordan, marketing chief.

• Applebee's. Since mid-November, the chain has offered a "2 for $20" special of two entrees and one appetizer. "While we can't fix the economic challenges, we are offering … value," says Shannon Scott, marketing chief.

• Outback Steakhouse. For months, the chain has marketed 15 meals for under $15. "We decided to get back to the DNA of the brand," says Dan Dillon, marketing chief.

• Texas Roadhouse. The chain recently launched an "Early Dine for $7.99" promo on weekdays. "We're trying to drive early-week traffic," says marketing chief Chris Jacobsen.

• Cheesecake Factory. A "Small Plates and Snacks" menu includes a $4.95 Pizzette, a flat, football-shaped pizza some folks are ordering as a meal. "We're making Cheesecake Factory cake more accessible," says Mark Mears, marketing chief.

• Morton's. Even Morton's has got a $99.99 steak and seafood dinner for two and $6 mini-burgers at the bar. (Average check at Morton's is $97 per person.) The goal, says CEO Tom Baldwin, is to drive sales. "These are unprecedented times."

READERS: How are you saving money while dining out?

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