It’s not that Wendy’s Baconator or the Grand Slam Slugger Breakfast from Denny’s will soon go the way of the dodo. But some national chains are feeling the pain amid dismal sales. Subway Restaurants, the biggest U.S. food chain by number of locations, saw the number of domestic outlets declinefor the first time ever last year. Noodles & Co. and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc. are shutting locations after failing to attract customers. Applebee’s, owned by DineEquity Inc., reported same-store sales tumbled almost 8 percent in its latest quarter, and casual-dining chain Ruby Tuesday Inc. said in March it may sell itself after a prolonged slump.
Honors System At Chicago’s Brown Bag Seafood Co., where sales jumped 63 percent in 2016, lunch customers can grab a cookie out of the “honors system” mailbox for just $1. There are homey touches, like a watercolor painting of the Clark Street Beach in nearby Evanston, Illinois, that founder Donna Lee’s mother painted.
Lee started Brown Bag in 2014 after realizing chains didn’t do it for her. “It feels like you’re there only and solely to get your food quickly and get out the door,” she said. “There really is no charm.” Brown Bag’s top seller is its daily-catch powerbox with grilled fish -- barramundi was on the menu on a recent weekday -- served atop quinoa, wild rice and spinach for $9.99. A nearby Panera Bread Co., which has more than 2,000 locations in 46 states and Canada, charges the same price for a strawberry poppyseed salad with chicken.
Maggiano’s has new menu items and meals that cater to customers’ allergies and diets -- think vegetarian, vegan and the occasional gluten-free ravioli. The chain updated its menu to include executive chef photos and short bios, and in February it introduced an emblem of millennial hip: brunch.Some chains are trying to imitate the success of smaller, independent brands. At Maggiano’s Little Italy, which has 52 locations and is owned by Chili’s parent Brinker International Inc., traffic has been on the wane. Same-store sales dropped 1.6 percent in the most recent quarter for the fourth-straight decline.