On a recent Saturday evening, as happy hour morphed into dinner hour, there were plenty of seats available at TGI Friday’s in St. Louis Park. Just seven souls sat at the restaurant’s central, rectangular bar, some eating, some drinking, some talking away.
But half a mile down the road at the new West End development, Figlio’s, another venerable Twin Cities restaurant brand, was packed with no tables available for dining until 8:45 p.m. at the earliest.
It’s a sign of the restaurant times that local, independent eateries are the rage and aging chains like Friday’s need to freshen up in order to compete. Confronted with that reality and a gradual but steady decline in market share, Carlson-owned TGI Friday’s is trying to return to its roots as a go-to center for a socially active clientele.
Think in terms of more single customers searching for other singles and less reliance on family-centric fare. It’s a customer demographic that translates into bigger bar tabs and fewer orders off the low-price children’s menu.
“The younger yuppie crowd spends more, drinks more and generates a greater check size than families do,” said Darren Tristano, a restaurant analyst with Technomic, a Chicago-based research and consulting firm that tracks the food service industry.
The Friday’s of the future can be found on Opry Mills Drive in Nashville where the new version opened last summer, replacing a traditional Friday’s that was wiped out by flooding two years earlier.
Gone are the distinctive barber-pole striped awnings. The TGI Friday’s logo has been modernized. The interior is less cluttered, the booth seating is plusher with leather seats. The tables are solid wood, not laminate. The kitchen is open. The gleaming marble-topped bar — the restaurant’s focus of attention — is larger, as are the flat-panel TVs that adorn the walls. The staff remains uber-friendly but without the kitschy buttons that used to punctuate their uniforms.
“Friday’s DNA is about fun and connecting with people,” said Ricky Richardson, president and chief operating officer for Friday’s USA. “We want a casual, relaxed atmosphere with a personal connection, not a sports bar where you go around and high-five everyone.”
The decision to remake Friday’s is a mission that began four years ago when CEO Nick Shepherd took the helm of Carlson Restaurants, Friday’s parent.
“The intent is to suck in the younger demographic without turning off the current demographic,” added Shepherd. “Everybody [in the casual dining segment] has begun to look like each other, and that’s not right for Friday’s. Friday’s has always played a role in American life.”
Shepherd described the target Friday’s customer as “a very social individual” in their 30s and up. “It’s less about age and more about who wants to socialize,” he said.
Friday’s, which traces its roots back 48 years to its first location in New York City, once had a reputation as a pickup bar.
“It was a place to meet airline stewardesses,” said Tristano.
Even Friday’s website pays homage to its heritage. “That first restaurant and bar gave people an opportunity to meet and connect with others in an invigorating environment,” the official company history states.
International sales rise
Friday’s is now a 934-unit chain with 565 of those restaurants in the United States, where about half are owned by franchisees. Domestic sales totaled $1.7 billion in 2012, down for six straight years and below the prerecession level of $2.1 billion in 2007 according to Technomic.
Internationally, however, Friday’s sales have been steadily increasing as it finds new markets in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Sales overseas climbed from $780 million in 2008 to $913 million last year.
“We don’t try and hide who we are. We’re an American casual dining bar,” said Shepherd. “Internationally we’ve had great success but you have to work that business every day.”
In the U.S. casual dining segment, Friday’s is the fourth-largest player, trailing Applebee’s, Chili’s and Golden Valley-based Buffalo Wild Wings, in that order, with 3.6 percent of the market in terms of sales, down from 4.7 percent five years ago.
But following a rough go that most restaurants experienced during the Great Recession, Friday’s has returned to profitability. From a loss of $4.8 million in 2010, the chain showed a net profit of $14.9 million in 2011 and $34.5 million in 2012.
The game plan now is to remodel existing locations and build new ones in the image of the Nashville model over the next three years. About 20 will be done by the end of this year.
Richardson called the cost of remodeling “a meaningful investment” but did not go into further detail.
“The Friday’s experience, when done well, is unique and differentiating,” he said.
Friday’s is also upgrading its menu which features Jack Daniel’s-accented meats and sauces as well as salads and shareable appetizers. Drink options have been expanded, too, ranging from a muddled cucumber cocktail with Hendrick’s gin to a strawberry basil margarita.
“It’s more about expanding the appeal than changing the appeal of the brand,” Richardson said. “The restaurant consumer nowadays is a much-more-aware dining consumer than anytime in the past.”
But it’s uncertain if Friday’s can compete with a Figlio, which was a dormant brand for three years before it was re-invented and reopened at its new location last September.
“We see ourselves as upscale casual,” said CEO Kam Talebi of Kaskaid Hospitality, which owns Figlio as well as Crave, Urban Eatery and Union. “Our menu is chef-driven and seasonal. We also have handcrafted cocktails and a diverse beer offering from local breweries. TGI Friday’s is perceived as a national chain.”
Analyst Tristano said Friday’s needs innovation and money to upgrade its brand if it wants a larger market share.
“Brands that differentiate themselves will be in a better position, not only in decor and efficiency but also with modern amenities like Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs and lounge seating,” Tristano said. “By investing in remodeling, you can incorporate new technology. Friday’s is generally in the top tier of the chain restaurants, and that is a good place to be.”