“We want more sit-down restaurants,” “We need more places to eat,” and “Bring us this restaurant” are comments that follow just about every social media post I make. People want to know why they have to drive to neighboring counties to eat at their favorite dine-in restaurants. Every time one of our buildings turns over to a new tenant, I can bank on answering these questions. Let’s explore the answers to these questions and try to understand why your favorite dining concept has not yet opened its doors in Springfield.
All conversations this year are influenced by COVID-19, but the truth is that sit-down restaurants were struggling long before this virus nearly shut down our economy. Competition from several non-traditional dining options coupled with shifting generational trends have led to years of declining sales. Springfield not only faces these national trends but we also have additional headwinds to consider: demographics (I further discuss this in previous blog posts here and here), no direct interstate access, and lack of a white-collar lunch dining crowd.
Let’s talk about competition. We all face it, but how does it affect dining trends? The answer is that many traditional sit-down dining options have become victim to fresh new ideas. Everyone has exciting, new options that fit our busy lifestyles better than dine-in restaurants. Food trucks give us exciting variety and a thrill-of-the chase experience. “Where is my favorite truck going to be today? Let me check Twitter to find out!” They also offer convenient options since many food trucks congregate with one another.
Pre-packaged meals and meal kit delivery services are also popular options that have eaten into our dining dollars. Grocery stores, such as Publix ™ and Whole Foods ™, have recently upped the quality of both pre-packaged and fresh meals. Now we can save time by picking up meals to go while grocery shopping. These stores also present the illusion that their meals are fresher and healthier because they are sitting within eye-shot of fresh ingredients of the produce section.
Meal kit services such as Blue Apron ™ or Hello Fresh ™ have been growing in market share due to their simplicity and easy-to-follow directions. The kits conveniently show up on our doorstep in dry ice packaging and we experience the excitement of unboxing all the unique seasonings and fresh ingredients. Families can prepare the meals together, leading to a sense of accomplishment not found in a trip to a restaurant.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the slow down in sit-down restaurant sales is the current shift in generational spending. The Millennial generation (those born between 1981-1996) has surpassed Baby Boomers to become the largest generation in population with over 72 million of us now in the United States. Naturally businesses are going to chase Millennial spending and cater to their appetites. Millennials spend more money dining out than any other generation. So what effects have they had on the dining industry?
Millennial dining decisions are often driven by a few key factors: convenience, sourcing, and price. The importance of time saving convenience has created an entire new restaurant genre – Fast Casual Dining. Unlike traditional sit-down restaurants, the ability to walk into a restaurant and be eating your food in less than five minutes has led to tremendous growth within the fast casual sector – think Chipotle, Panera, and Panda Express. These concepts empower consumers by allowing us to see the food before we order or as it’s being prepared. Restaurants also market buzz words such as “farm-sourced” and “organic” to appeal to Millennial expectations for community involvement and health conscious menu items. We also can refill our own drinks and don’t have to leave a tip. The rapidly increasing number of fast casual concepts reflects the importance of convenience, sourcing, and cost among today’s Millennial consumers.
Sit-down restaurants are struggling to adjust to these monumental shifts within the dining industry. With sales numbers down the chain operators see little opportunity for growth – and this includes Springfield. These trends coupled with the uncertainties of a COVID-19 era, don’t offer an optimistic forecast for them to open in our town any time soon. Perhaps a post COVID-19 dining world will offer less competition and pent-up demand, but it is doubtful these short term bumps in sales will be sustainable.
Thankfully, Springfield has an amazing independent dining scene that we all can enjoy! There are great options for many tastes including barbecue, Asian-influenced, Italian, American, and homestyle dining. So while we may not soon get that sit down dining chain you are wishing for, supporting our existing sit down restaurants during this pandemic will ensure they remain open for us to enjoy.