Many people in the restaurant business blame finicky millennials for the decline of casual dining chains.
If you’re wondering what the 20- and 30-somethings don't like about the sit-down places earlier generations loved, how much time do you have?
First, the Gen Y crowd wants healthier options. They find them through mobile apps or meal kit delivery services.
Additionally, millennials aren’t loyal to any one place the way their parents were. They like trying trendy new spots with small plates, and they'd rather grab and go than languish over a three-course meal.
For these iconic chain restaurants, that really bites.
Larry Lavine’s original Chili’s in Dallas had a one-page menu featuring an authentic “bowl of red.” That’s Texan for chili that will clear your sinuses.
But the chain has steadily migrated from its roots. Baby back ribs remain a popular mainstay, but some experts think Chili's ever-expanding menu misses the mark.
J.P. Morgan restaurants analyst John Ivankoe has said sticking to basics like ribs and fajitas would boost sales.
Speedier service might help, too. "No matter which location I go to, it takes at least 45 minutes from when I place an order to receive my food," writes one Chili's customer, on Reddit.
2. The Cheesecake Factory
Millennials don’t want pad thai, gluten-free pizza and ahi tacos on the same menu. They have a favorite local indie spot for each of those.
When restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory offer 250 menu items, overall quality is bound to suffer.
“The larger the menu, the more consumers might worry all those things aren’t going to be all that good,” Maeve Webster, a senior director at Datassential Menu Trends, told The Washington Post.
Rising prices at The Cheesecake Factory are a thing, too. The average individual tab jumped 9% over four recent years, according to one study. Overall inflation rose just 6% during the same period.
The generation raised on chicken nuggets has moved on to healthier horizons. Applebee's tried but failed to do the same.
Millennials didn’t bite when their childhood post-soccer hangout baited them with chicken wonton tacos and sriracha-lime shrimp. The chain has shut down scores of its restaurants in recent years, and another 20 or more are expected to call it quits in 2019.
All hope is not lost. By concentrating on takeout, delivery and catering, Applebee's managed to make 2018 its best year in a quarter century, executives said.
The chain is leaving millennials to their edamame and is wooing back baby boomers with its "2-for-$20" menu and all-you-can-eat dinner specials.
Both male and female millennials cry foul over Hooters' hiring practices, skimpy uniforms and sexualization of the workplace.
Some 7% of Hooters locations closed between 2012 and 2016, and it’s not just Americans who get offended by the way the chain has objectified women. Attempts to expand in the U.K. were met with protests. One restaurant that did open survived for only a year.
For three decades, Hooters offered run-of-the-mill bar fare. A menu redesign in 2013 finally introduced fresher options.
A Hooters fast-food spinoff called Hoots has ditched the revealing uniforms. The new concept is counter-service only, and the servers are both men and women.
5. TGI Fridays
Twenty- and 30-somethings find it hard to believe that TGI Fridays used to be jam-packed from happy hour until last call.
The original location in New York City was a singles bar that had the briefest of chalkboard menus, but growth resulted in a gargantuan menu. Back in the 1980s, everything from stuffed potato skins to eggs Benedict was made from scratch.
One former CEO, John Antioco, blamed overzealous expansion into the suburbs for the chain’s present-day woes.
However, location may not be the problem. To millennials, Fridays is just so yesterday.
6. Buffalo Wild Wings
Jim Disbrow got an unpleasant surprise when he relocated from Buffalo, New York to Ohio: The chicken wings in the Buckeye State left much to be desired.
With business partner Scott Lowery, Disbrow in 1982 founded what's now a struggling chain known for sports, beer and calorie bombs.
Buffalo Wild Wings just doesn’t fly with millennials. In a 2017 letter to shareholders, then-CEO Sally Smith summed it up this way: "Millennial consumers are more attracted than their elders to cooking at home, ordering delivery from restaurants, and eating quickly."
A 15-minute lunch guarantee might not be enough to attract younger people seeking an altogether different experience and more elevated food.
7. Old Country Buffet
The words "old" and "buffet" are surely a turnoff for the younger generation.
This chain — which also calls its restaurants Ryan’s and HomeTown Buffet — has shut down more than 600 of its locations since 2006. The company's website now lists fewer than 70.
Not only are buffets not Instagram-friendly, but they’re potentially dangerous. Even when safety regulations are followed to the letter, everyone, including the guy coming down with the flu, handles the same serving utensils.
Since online reviewers are quick to spread news of food poisonings or outbreaks of hepatitis A, millennials have kissed buffets goodbye.
8. Ruby Tuesday
To its credit, this casual dining chain was one of the first to offer healthy options. And, its strategy of opening in malls was a stroke of genius — until malls started dying off.
Millennials shop online and rustle up dinner through an app. The Wall Street Journal named Ruby Tuesday one of the restaurants hardest hit by the decline of America's shopping malls.
Ruby Tuesday was never as large as Chili’s or Applebee’s — and it keeps getting smaller.
The chain has shrunk from a high of about 945 restaurants to fewer than 500 locations today, according to industry reports.
9. Pizza Hut
Just five years ago, Pizza Hut was outselling its closest rival, Domino's, by more than 50%. But Domino's had the smarts to evolve with technology, so now it's on top.
One reason Pizza Hut has fallen behind — particularly with millennials — is that so many of its restaurants are sit-down joints. Who wants to hang out in a Pizza Hut when you can order in and watch Netflix?
As part of its recipe for recovery, the chain last year bought QuikOrder, an online service. FedEx delivery by robot, Toyota pizza-making trucks, and beer delivery could be in Pizza Hut's future.
And, about 450 Pizza Hut locations will shut down as the brand transitions away from dine-in restaurants and becomes a strictly carryout and delivery pizza chain — just like Domino's.
10. Sweet Tomatoes
Sweet Tomatoes — called Souplantation in Southern California — is another buffet chain. Its soup and salad bar offerings are rather predictable, but the all-you-can-eat lunches are wildly popular with cash-strapped seniors.
Millennials, who frown on scarfing all you can in one sitting, are drifting to a Sweet Tomatoes competitor called Sweetgreen.
It's winning the hearts of younger consumers with custom-prepared salads, dressings whipped up by celebrity chefs, trendy ingredients and seasonal surprises.
As for Sweet Tomatoes, its parent company filed for bankruptcy in 2016 and closed more than 20 locations. The business was $175 million in debt at the time.