Goodbye Ruby Tuesday?

To use a clichéd musical-themed pun, we could soon be saying goodbye to Ruby Tuesday. The Tennessee-based bar and grill restaurant chain announced this past March that they would be putting themselves up for sale or a potential merger. The unsurprising announcement comes after years of declining sales and location closures for the brand that thrived in the 1990s and early 2000s. Ruby Tuesday has not seen a year of growth since 2011 and approximately 100 locations closed in 2016 alone. The chain had also recently taken to selling certain locations to investors in sale-leaseback deals, foreshadowing the brand’s desperate move to come. More than anything, the sale of Ruby Tuesday signals an end to the reign of the casual dining category of the food industry.

Ruby Tuesday can’t seem to resurrect itself.

Unfortunately for Ruby Tuesday’s executives, the announcement also comes after years of attempts at menu innovation and risky marketing decisions. In 2016, Ruby Tuesday gained a new CMO and re-focused their advertising efforts on targeting families, especially millennial moms; in previous years, the brand had tried to do away with their focus on the family and move to a more adults-only aesthetic, even going as far as to remove diaper-changing stations from restaurant bathrooms. This attempt at brand revitalization resulted in removing advertising dollars from television completely, choosing instead to focus on paid social advertising and online video with Hulu and YouTube.

The nontraditional move was risky but allowed the struggling restaurant chain to geo-target their advertising to areas surrounding their locations, specifically reach their chosen audience and tell more emotional visual stories than a mere 30-second television spot could ever allow. 2016 also saw Ruby Tuesday honing in on their Garden Bar, a self-service salad bar, in advertising. There was an introduction of new, fresh Garden Bar ingredients, better to serve the moms the brand desperately wanted to appease. For all of their risk, it seems that the brand’s moves did not result in much reward.

Ruby Tuesday’s attempt to reinvent themselves is a great example of marketing trial and error, but it also signals trouble for the casual dining industry as a whole. Similar restaurant chains like Olive Garden and Applebee’s are struggling as well, though those brands have not made such brazen attempts at menu and marketing changes like Ruby Tuesday. Both still favor a heavily TV-focused media rotation, insisting that inundating consumers’ screens will work in their favor, and rely on limited time offers and slashed prices in order to attempt to make a splash in a dining landscape that currently favors fast casual restaurants and healthy food trends.

You wouldn’t exactly go to Olive Garden and eat their bottomless breadsticks if you were looking for a healthy place to eat out with your family, but a “two entrees for the price of one” deal can only do so much to convince you otherwise.

How casual dining can survive a changing industry.

So, were Ruby Tuesday’s last-ditch attempts to make a profit worthwhile? Yes and no. The re-focus on family dining and adding new ingredients to the Garden Bar menu prove that the brand wasn’t willing to go down without a fight.

The move away from traditional advertising and increased efforts in paid social advertising were innovative and forward-thinking, particularly because TV commercials are a familiar and effective way for brands to reach a wider audience and straying from that tried-and-true model will always be perilous. However, those risks might also have contributed to the chain’s demise. Other casual dining restaurant chains have stayed the course, choosing to put the majority of their ad dollars in television and not make drastic changes to their menus.

Those chains are still open for business, though they might soon follow in Ruby Tuesday’s worn footsteps. In February 2017, Applebee’s posted their sixth straight negative sales quarter and in March their CEO was ousted. Bloomin’ Brands, which owns casual dining chains Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Grill, recently announced plans to close 43 locations after a rough 2016. Though brand reinvention wasn’t to be for Ruby Tuesday, perhaps other troubled chains could take a few notes from their demise and, at the very least, go down swinging

The paradox of choice and missed opportunity

Watch new guests walk into your restaurant and stare at the menu. Do they scan quickly and nod or do they drift across the options, mouth dropping open?

In 2004, Barry Schwartz wrote Paradox of Choice, in which he proves that more options can actually reduce the quality of the customer experience (which was not yet a buzzword). This theory explains the growth of fast casual restaurants. The concepts are simple to understand, the menu is void of the clutter that QSR and casual dining brands have added over the years to keep up.

While choices are necessary to fight the veto, too much choice confuses guests and weakens their understanding of the concept. As Zac Painter, VP of Marketing at Fatz Cafe told F&RM, during the great recession the brand had added a Chinese chicken salad to its menu of home cooked southern classics. The item has since been removed from the menu.

Options like these create confusion for the guest. It’s why Chick Fil A and In-N-Out Burger continue to succeed. Customers know what they come in for, and the brand doesn’t make them search to hard for it.

choice, veto, menu
Four food items, three of which are hamburgers. How’s that for choice?

That’s not to say that every brand should restrict choice to less than ten items. But a key point here is that brands like these offer streamlined menus, and execute on every item. Can you even imagine the wait at In-N-Out if they added more items?

Look at the top growth brands and you’ll see that they all have simple menus in common. Chicken brands like Zaxby’s and Raising Cane’s keep the menu options tight and reap the benefit. Guests crave chicken, they go to a place that executes what they have on their mind.

When guests order from a busy menu they aren’t thinking very logically about making the optimal selection. That’s just not how we’re wired. Instead, in an environment scattered with choice, they simply try to meet the requirement of the task – choose something.

Being overwhelmed by choice can leave people feeling lonely and even depressed, according to Barry Schwartz. Not exactly the aim of hospitality. People are looking to choose but don’t know how to make the choice.

But this harried execution of selection leads to a state that Schwartz calls ‘missed opportunity.’ This happens when they realize they chose something they didn’t really want, or later find a selection they believe would have been more satisfying. This also creates a bad brand experience because they feel that they ‘ordered the wrong thing.’

Of course brands like The Cheesecake Factory deliver on a menu as thick as a phone book every day. There will always be exceptions to any rule. For whatever reason, that brand has driven loyalty by offering tons of choice – even on the dessert menu. This is because, like Chick Fil A and Raising Cane’s, they execute every time.

It is hard to make the wrong choice. But most restaurants are not The Cheesecake Factory. To simplify on execution, simplify the menu. As a brand, there shouldn’t be a wrong thing to be ordered. There shouldn’t be that Chinese chicken salad.

The case against mobile apps for restaurant brands

The conversation inside every restaurant brand about apps is heated. There are technology providers, white label solutions and solo coders trying to sell your brand an app. Despite the glossy sales pitch, there are some things you should know about building in app. They definitely aren’t for everyone. Here, we lay out the case against building an app, and the ways to build traffic and sales without one. Want to hear the flip side? Read the companion piece that makes the counterpoint: The case for mobile apps for restaurant brands. On with the negative case.

An app won’t generate new customers alone

For every brand, driving customers into the restaurant is the lifeblood of your business. As marketers and operators, we tend to look at every new tool as if it can drive our business. It seems we are always one tool away from cracking our business wide open. Here’s the fact – no restaurant brand has successfully launched an app that wasn’t already having success. Vendors celebrate the successful case studies like Starbucks or Domino’s. Those brands were doing just fine in the traffic department prior to launching apps that were specifically designed to improve frequency and loyalty from their legions of customers. Brands think they can launch an app without including rewards or at least special offers are not being honest with themselves. If incentivized, intelligent discounting isn’t part of your plan, do not expect mobile apps to drive trial unless the app is truly ground breaking.

A growing number of mobile users report downloading zero new apps per month.

90% of mobile usage time is in apps.

This may sound like a pretty pro-app argument. The reality is that those apps are well established corporations investing billions into user acquisition and ongoing engagement. Congratulations, your brand will now be competing against Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Pandora, Netflix, Amazon, Apple and every media and entertainment company for screen real-estate. Think your brand is as much fun as Candy Crush?

Fewer app downloads every month

Despite the dominance in usage of mobile apps on smart phones, people are seeking out few new ones. According to comScore, new app downloads per user are trending down. In fact, a growing number of mobile users report downloading zero new apps per month. This means the battle for real estate on the home screen is getting more and more serious. How serious, half of all smart phone users fall into this zero app category.

Without serious innovation it won’t drive awareness or usage

Go ahead an try any five restaurant apps for brands you never use. They likely have the same feature set and he same set of flaws. If you’re not familiar with the restaurant, the app does little to drive a visit or a sale. People inside many brands believe the mere creation of the app will be newsworthy. It won’t. To break through with consumers, the app has to offer a truly interesting experience. That might mean a novel design or an integration with the store.

Are you prepared to market mobile apps?

In many cases, brands tell us the app is a solution to the problem of low awareness or increased competition. If you’re already challenged by marketing this new app will create a new problem. The app is a product of its own. Like any product it requires a marketing plan, a budget, support and maintenance. That’s a full-time commitment. Many brands looking to the app as a savior know how hard successful launching a string of LTOs can be. Marketing the app is no simpler.

Think social media blows up when there’s a problem in one restaurant? Wait until someone has a malfunctioning app in their hand. The app is not just an extension of the brand, a successful app can become the brand – and that is a double edged sword. Spend some time on the app store to see how competitive listings are for mobile apps. Seems almost as tough as marketing a restaurant, no?

Wide adoption of mobile web

Over two years ago, the number of smart phone users surpassed the number of desktop computer users. Not only are more people than ever using smartphones to browse and shop, but this tells us that more technology investments are being made to improve the basic infrastructure. The mobile web has arrived and is getting stronger everyday. This means that having a great mobile website will accomplish most of the things the average brand hopes an app will do. At least it will provide proof of concept that your customers want an app.

True, a website will lack some of the functionality for loyalty, but testing guest interest and understanding usage patterns on the web will allow you to design and build a more useful app. A mobile website will also allow for use on iOS, Android, Windows, Blackberry and any other platform out there and keep brands above the fray between mobile payment services.

As you can see, much consideration must be made before leaping into development of an app. The investment of time, resources and of course money are critical. Want a look on the bright side? Read the companion piece that makes the counterpoint: The case for mobile apps for restaurant brands.