Dine-in occasions may be all but extinct under social distancing restrictions, but the novel coronavirus has also primed restaurants to take advantage of a lucrative occasion: family meals.
As American families adjust to shelter-in-place orders, many parents are looking for opportunities to put a meal on the table without having to touch the stove or dishwasher.
Before coronavirus, 80% of millennial parents visited restaurants at least once per week and rated a restaurant’s “kid-friendliness” as the most important criteria when deciding where to eat out. Millennials also made up 25% of restaurant visits in 2019, but Gen X wasn’t far behind at 23% of visits, preferring the convenience of restaurants as well as the experience because their kids were older and more independent.
But once the pandemic hit and dining rooms closed in March, the share of food spend skewed toward grocery shopping and preparing meals at home with groceries garnering 78% of the food spend as of the first two weeks of April, according to Black Box Intelligence. Off-premise quickly rose by 67% in March. For quick-service restaurants family or larger party size visits increased dollars by 2% while average check increased 5%, according data from The NPD Group.
New England Authentic Eats seized upon the opportunity to give parents a break from endless cooking by quickly pivoting the marketing catering menus at its Papa Gino's and D'Angelo Grilled Sandwich restaurants to family meals.
“In this sort of new normal that we have going on, those [catering] occasions are limited,” Deena McKinley, CMO of New England Authentic Eats, told Restaurant Dive. “But what isn’t limited is this idea of family mealtimes … and people needing different options to keep the families happy.”
Its family meals for both brands were existing catering items, McKinley said. Prices range from $29.99 to $39.99, but break down to about $5.99 to $7.99 per person for a family of four or five. D’Angelo is offering rice bowls as part of its family meals. Papa Gino’s has pasta dishes such as chicken and broccoli alfredo, pasta marina, cheese ravioli, chicken parmesan and mac and cheese.
These deals could help capture consumers who may be reticent about returning to restaurants as states ease dine-in restrictions. In a Market Research Answers survey of 1,000 consumers, half of the respondents were concerned about a restaurant operator's ability to make sure staff and customers were safe, and 43% said they expect to purchase less at restaurants than what they purchased prior to the outbreak.
Family meals can also benefit restaurants by exposing customers to other menu items they may not typically try and also allow operators to drill down on per person pricing to show how these meals are affordable, McKinley said.
While D’Angelo and Papa Gino’s always sold these items in its family deals for catering, it never did regular guest outreach until early April, when the company started marketing them in emails, text messaging and on social media, McKinley said. Since then, orders and interest have been healthy.
But Papa Gino’s and D’Angelo aren’t alone in this strategy. Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh also looked over its catering offerings and developed a menu where guests could mix and match sauces, meats, veggies and salads with six-packs of pita and falafel, Devin Handler, VP of marketing at Garbanzo, told Restaurant Dive. The chain started selling family meals in early April.
The company didn’t use any new SKUs or packaging and was able to launch a new product by simply reconfiguring existing menu items, Handler said.
What also helped was the restaurant already batch cooks various ingredients and when it knows it has a large bulk to-go order out that day, it will just cook more batches to accommodate those orders, Handler said.
While the company is only a few weeks into offering family meals, its sales are increasing, Handler said. He anticipates that the family style will be used for small office catering in the future.
“So bottom line it’s a creative merchandising play with existing packaging and SKUs that we think was done in such a way that won't only sort of satiate the moment but will live beyond and be a valuable offering for our guests,” Handler said.
Mexican chains primed to feed the whole family
Large casual chains have also offered family meals, including Denny’s, BJ’s, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, but Mexican food chains have been particularly keen to offer family deals, especially since their popular taco offerings travel well.
El Pollo Loco was well prepared for this trend since it has been promoting more family meals through its delivery channels since last year, helping it create higher average ticket sales. Whenever it runs family meal promotions, it sees a 3% to 5% incremental same-store sales lift during those marketing days, Bernard Acoca, El Pollo Loco CEO, said during the company’s Q1 2020 earnings call on April 30, adding that 50% of what is being sold through its e-commerce channel is family chicken meals and 50% of what is being delivered are these meals.
“Overall, these family meal offerings have resonated very well with our customers resulting in record high family chicken sales mix during the last several weeks,” Acoca said.
Taco Bell, which already offered party packs, added a meal kit to feed six for $25 that allows people to customize their tacos. Qdoba offers a family meal for about $35 and provides aluminum pans with either grilled chicken or steak, cilantro lime rice, black beans, tortillas, queso, pico de gallo and other toppings for six people. Chevy’s, On the Border and Chuy’s are also offering various family meals.
Mid-size Mexican chains are getting creative with family meals, as well.
Bartaco, which has locations in 13 states, already had the infrastructure in place with its party packs, which it provides for all types of group gatherings, such as birthdays, sporting events and graduation, and decided to roll out family packs beginning mid-March, Scott Lawton, bartaco co-founder, told Restaurant Dive.
It chose to offer a roasted chicken pack and a taco pack offering. The taco pack provides two taco fillings from its standard taco menu, which offers fillings such as chicken, cauliflower, baja fish, carnitas, mushroom, pork belly, duck and oyster. The taco pack also carries well and can be reheated if it is not eaten right away, Lawton said.
“We are learning a lot in these crazy times — our team is really creative and as we respond to the needs of our guests, I am taking careful notes,” Lawton said. “This is a great opportunity to really focus on takeout and delivery and get it right for our guests.”
So far, guests and loyal diners have provided positive feedback over its family packs, Lawton said.
“People have been posting themselves on social media bartaco’ing at home and it’s been really amazing to see,” Lawton said.
While it expects to operate on a limited menu for the foreseeable future, bartaco also rolled out additional offerings including to-go alcoholic beverages and margarita carafes and kits. It is taking orders through its app, online or by phone for curbside pickup and delivery. It is also selling e-gift cards with 100% of these funds benefiting the bartaco employee fund.
When a majority of states were under a stay-at-home mandate, Torchy’s Tacos debuted its family packs to appeal to consumers looking for customizable meal options for their families, Scott Hudler, Torchy’s Tacos CMO, told Restaurant Dive.
Torchy’s Tacos is offering family packs that serve four to five people and provides a choice of meat, tortillas and toppings, rice, beans and chips for about $25, Hudler said. It also is offering to-go selections from its bar in states where it is allowed. These selections include an At-Home Margarita Kit, which provides a bottle of tequila, housemade sweet and sour, salt and lime.
Demand for these take-home offerings has been particularly positive, Hudler said. To meet demand, Torchy’s added its top-selling Trailer Park Taco to its family pack menu. It also added a new single-serve Bootleg Margarita Kit, Mimosa and Bloody Mary Kits and Titos + Mixers to its guests in Texas, Hudler said.
“We, like everyone else in the restaurant industry, are considering what our menu and restaurants will look like once we are able to reopen our doors to guests,” Hudler said. “We expect delivery and takeout will continue to be a bigger emphasis for us, and given guest feedback, [we] are certainly considering making some of our newer rollouts, such as family packs, a more permanent part of our menu offerings.”
It’s very possible that family meals will remain on the menu for New England Eats, as well.
“When everything’s over, or sort of over, because it’s going to take a long time to really get back to normal, people are still going to be needing to rely on things like this that are good food, things that you feel good about feeding your families, [and] things that their families like for value,” McKinley said.