How do you survive in the casual dining sector in 2019?

2018 was a challenging year for the casual dining sector, to put it mildly. Byron, Jamie’s Italian, Prezzo, Chimichanga, Strada and other well-known, established chains hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, closing restaurants and laying off staff left, right and centre. One of the major factors in the downturn is simply that the cost of running restaurants has increased. Higher rents, rising food prices and wages have combined to drive many restaurants to closure.

There are anomalies, however. Wagamama reported 7.7% like-for-like sales growth in Q4 and the Azzurri Group, which owns Italian brands Zizzi, Ask Italian and Coco di Mama, saw a 9.4% rise in pre-tax profit. What can be learned from those that are thriving in what is clearly a challenging market?

Know yourself and know your customer

Those chains that are succeeding know their own brand and their customer inside-out. It’s important to define your brand and your proposition before you do anything else. Know who your target audience is, and keep them in mind when you make key decisions like what to put on the menu and where to open a new branch. You can’t compete with everyone; you have to accept that. Embrace your niche and stick to what you’re good at.

Track trends but don’t be a slave to them

Innovation is key to staying at the forefront of people’s minds. While there’s a certain comfort for some people in knowing what they want without looking at the menu, encouraging multiple visits for many will depend on having new dishes to try. The rise of the internet and social media means food trends are now more changeable than ever before – from flavours, to diets, to ingredients – and restaurants are feeling the pressure to stay on top of ‘what consumers want’. Although it may help to cater to trends, it’s more important to stay true to your brand. See above.

Loud and clear

The key to standing out in an over-saturated market is to deliver a clear message. Let customers know what you stand for. Every time someone comes into your restaurant they should understand what it is about without needing to have it explained. You need to make sure that diners know exactly what to expect from your restaurant and in doing so make it a dining destination they want to recommend and return to.

Quality is queen

To survive in this climate, restaurants have to focus on the quality of the experience for customers, an element some chains have lost sight of in their rush to expand. There is so much choice, customers are looking for more in terms of food and experience when they eat out. This means getting in ingredients and dishes of the highest standard they can be for your price point, ensuring service is up to par or better, and making sure the environment you’re operating in is up to scratch.

Little and often

Rather than offering generous discounts which could devalue your offering, encourage your customers to visit more often – even if they’re spending a little less – and develop a lasting relationship built on all of the above. The brand loyalty this will bring equates to long term sustainability for your business.


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