Back in 2014, business was solid, but not sizzling, at Chili’s restaurants. Traffic across the casual dining category had been declining for some time and guests were visiting these restaurants less and less frequently—making 1.5 billion fewer annual visits, or a decrease of 2%. Not surprisingly, the decline in the casual dining business coincided with the emergence of the fast casual category and with an evolution of consumer preferences.
How could this nationally known restaurant chain reverse that trend and make their brand more welcoming to today’s customers? We started with the food. At the time, Chili’s had a swelling menu. At the original restaurant, the menu had just 15 items, and 40 years later it had grown significantly.
Chili’s partnered with Continuum to create a new lighthouse menu that would resonate with today’s consumer preferences and Chili’s core brand DNA. We worked with a cross-functional team, including Chili’s finance, culinary, strategic innovation, operations, supply chain, and marketing groups to look at every item on the menu. Our task: to rebuild Chili’s menu with a distinct culinary point of view, one that spoke to the Chili’s brand by highlighting foods that only Chili’s can do best. The key way for a restaurant chain to be more hospitable to patrons is to alter the primary offering. Changing the core menu, we soon saw, could have an enormous potential impact.
“We have partnered with Continuum for several years as Chili’s has pursued both brand relevance and differentiation in a very crowded casual dining category. Continuum has been a great partner in pushing us to think differently with their deep understanding of macro trends and evolving consumer needs. Continuum turns their recommended strategic vision into playbooks and frameworks that provide clarity and direction for the activation. It’s the magical intersection of insights and strategy and implementation plans that make their work so invaluable.”
—Kelli Valade, President, Chili's
Research & Insights
Research & Insights
A Menu of One’s Own
Many restaurants feature “America’s Favorites”—but few actually differentiate themselves and create something unique and ownable. We helped Chili’s define menu platforms that the company could own and innovate. To do so, we looked back at Chili’s rich heritage for inspiration.
In partnership with Chili’s, we created a three-year menu innovation roadmap. In time, the restaurant will be adding new items to the menu and, when necessary, removing others. Our plan aims to help both consumers and the culinary team make the three-year transition, with an understanding that these changes have a profound effect on operations in the “heart of house." Through Continuum’s collaboration with Chili’s, we were able to deliver this solution—almost all of these changes—in less than two years.
“In my 25 years of experience in menu development, I’ve never been able to make the amount of progress in such a short time transforming the menu as we have through this partnership with Continuum. Without our new differentiated point of view in Fresh Tex and Fresh Mex, the New School filters, and the Flavor DNA—without that clear vision—we just wouldn’t have been able to do this in less than 3 years.” –Chef Stephen Bulgarelli, VP of Food & Beverage Innovation
The introduction of new primary menu platforms—Fresh Tex and Fresh Mex—has been extremely positive. Sales and traffic have risen, according to a 2018 earnings call. The new slimmed-down menu has, according to Wyman T. Roberts, CEO and President of parent company Brinker International, Inc., enabled Chili's “to deliver hotter food faster and cut our longest ticket times in half.” Roberts adds: “This quarter has been our best year, outperforming the industry on sales and significantly outperforming on traffic.” Brinker reports that first quarter revenues of fiscal 2019 are up: $753.8 million, from $739.4 million, an increase of 1.9%.