After watching more customers stream into drive-throughs for a quick morning meal, family dining restaurants like Denny's and IHOP are telling their fast-food competitors to back off breakfast.
In an attempt to lure diners back to the table — or at least to the curb — the chains are introducing more portable products, offering to-go and curbside pickup programs, and remodeling their locations.
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The moves come as breakfast has taken on far more importance to fast-food chains that traditionally put little effort into the morning meal. Some are even thinking about serving breakfast all day at some point — a switch that would directly challenge the 24/7 breakfast menus that drive a large part of sales at family dining restaurants.
”We're being attacked,“ Denny's Corp. Chief Executive Nelson Marchioli said in an interview. ”We can't let that happen. We have to take back what was ours to begin with.“
That won't be easy, restaurant analysts say, considering the premium consumers place on convenience, speed and low prices.
”It's hard to beat fast food,“ said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of consumer research firm Technomic Inc. ”The demographics and lifestyle trends are working against“ the family dining chains.
Complicating the issue is the slow economy and consumers' desire to spend less on eating out. Fast-food chains have been a beneficiary of people's reluctance to part with their cash since they offer food at lower prices Many fast-food chains also routinely offer special deals with even lower prices.
Denny's — which has built its business on breakfast dishes such as the Grand Slam — has seen its sales decline as consumers have cut back on spending and shifted to cheaper fast food. In the second quarter, same-store sales, or sales at locations open at least a year, fell 2.8 percent systemwide.
The company launched a to-go campaign last month that features a layered, dome container meant to keep pancakes hot and bacon crispy. Marchioli said he has seen ”a nice increase“ in the company's take-out business since introducing the new packaging, which is available for the restaurant's full menu.
Denny's is also offering two new breakfast skillets for $5.99 each, both to eat in and to go, and is testing a hand-held Grand Slam.
”Customers are telling us, "I'd get up 10 minutes earlier for this,'“ Marchioli said.
IHOP has also been promoting its to-go options in the past year, leading carry-out sales to rise from about 2 percent of its business to nearly 4 percent, said Patrick Lenow, spokesman for the chain's parent company, DineEquity Inc.
Lenow added that IHOP is also looking into developing ”more portable foods for dashboard dining,“ but declined to give specifics.