Fast casual has certainly given other segments in the restaurant industry a run for their money in the past few years, and it’s no surprise that this segment has become the fastest-growing in the industry. The combination of fresh, made-to-order, customizable and less costly food is more appealing in terms of healthiness, transparency and cost-saving options. But most recently, we’re seeing casual dining trends increase as well, with consumers visiting casual restaurants even more than fast casuals, proving that a little competition can be a good thing. In terms of LBA (location-based actions) activity, such as check-ins and geo-data via smartphone, there’s been a jump in casual dining LBAs. Casual dining LBAs are now 4.8% more common among diners than fast casual LBAs, compared to 2012 when casual LBAs lagged by 23.4%. By taking notes from its quick and fresh counterpart, casual dining has stepped up its competitive game in terms of quality, menu, performance and innovation.

Bottoms up

Casual dining upturn can be attributed to a few things, but ultimately boils down to offering consumers things that the fast casual sector does not. One of the biggest differences is that most casual restaurants offer liquor menus beyond beer and wine. While some fast casuals offer the standard beer, wine and wine-based margaritas, it’s certainly no full bar.

Most millennials, which are the largest generation to date (read: the most influential for brands and marketers), are now of drinking age, where it’s cool to get a drink with dinner, or even to just meet up with friends at a restaurant bar.

“Millennials are absolutely driving some of the biggest trends in adult beverage and will continue to do so for the next few years,” said David Henkes, vice president at Technomic, a Chicago-based market research firm for the restaurant industry.

According to the 2012 Technomic Report on Special Trends in Adult Beverage for Millennial Consumers, this group contains a lot of frequent drinkers, with 8 in 10 survey respondents admitting to having had at least one drink within the past week in a restaurant or bar. And though millennials are known to be willing to pay more for better quality items, they are still a bit frugal, which is why casual dining additions, such as cheaper bar bites, 2-for-1s and happy hours are winning over this generation.

Mobile madness

Two of the top five casual dining brands with the most mobile-friendly consumers are Yard House (No. 3) and Red Robin (No. 2). Research data pulled for this segment is based on super users for the restaurant business — those who have a minimum of five mobile actions per month with a casual restaurant brand.

Whether their own mobile offerings are related to this data or not, both brands have nailed their mobile presence. Red Robin’s mobile application allows guests to customize their meals and provides up-to-date nutritional values. Yard House’s mobile site includes a beer finder and a Chalkboard Beer Series and features music playlists from specific Yard House locations.

Flavors of love

Though social and digital strategies are vital for consumers to indulge in a full 360 brand experience, at the end of the day, your brand must deliver a quality product. The Casual Dining Social 100 Report lays out the Top 10 Brands with the “Best Food Sentiment.” Sentiment is broken down into three categories that resolve against tens of thousands of key words based on service, food and overall brand experience. The score is then averaged for an overall sentiment.

At No. 10 is Yard House, with a 58.94 sentiment score. Whether it’s their food or beer menu, Yard House covers the whole gamut. They boast one of the largest selections of draft beers in the country, with everything from ciders and floral ales to spiced and malty varieties. The food menu includes sushi, truffle burgers and ribs, street tacos, salads and a full selection of vegetarian options.

For an in-depth look at the other Top Brands, make sure to check out DigitalCoCo’s 2013 Casual Dining Social 100 Report, where we dive into the Big Data of casual dining brands, including which have the most mobile-connected consumers, what the top consumer demographics are for the segment.

DigitalCoCo is the proprietary owner of the largest consumer index for the restaurant and hospitality industry at over 42 million social consumers related to the industry, and tracking more than 4,700 restaurant brands.

Paul Barron is a Web entrepreneur who launched several successful restaurant and hospitality trade websites, events and think tanks. He is credited with starting the fast-casual restaurant revolution when he launched FastCasual.com in the 1990s. He is the founder of DigitalCoCo, a social media analytics and creative agency in South Florida.

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