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Innovative promotions keep US consumers eating out

In a world where UK trends often reflect those occurring on the other side of the pond, it is worth noting how American foodservice operators are managing to keep customers eating at their establishments.

Take-out meals for free, courses for the dog, loyalty programmes, starters served as main course and sharing platters are just some of the promotions that our US cousins are running to boost flagging sales.

"Like the UK, the American eating-out market is suffering severely," commented Horizons' managing director Peter Backman*. "Feedback from US restaurant chains demonstrates that, as in the UK, eating out on a whim is no longer happening and the corporate expense account has gone into hibernation.

"But across the board there seem to be some major changes in the food being eaten in restaurants. For example, operators are moving their appetisers to become main courses, without changing the price, advertising ‘pay less for the same great food'. Restaurant chain Applebee's now offers what was an appetiser of three mini-burgers as a starter. The 80-strong Daphne's Greek Café chain has recently reduced the price of a popular soup from $3.19 to $1 when ordered with a main course. When the offer was launched sales are said to have jumped 10-fold. Einstein Bros Bagels, which has over 300 units across 30 states, has introduced a ‘doggy bagel' for $1 to attract pet owners!"

Along with clever price promotions, there is also evidence that the type of foods being ordered by American consumers is beginning to change. One overwhelming trend is that of smaller, sharing portions such as bite-sized mini-desserts, small plates of starters such as tapas, dim sum or mezze, mini-burgers as starters, amuse-bouche being ordered rather than more formal appetisers, plates of combo salads, Asian-style appetisers and more unusual items such as drinkable desserts or savoury desserts.

"These trends show that consumers are responding to the economic downturn and the requirement to eat more healthily by choosing different foods on the menus," adds Backman. "Operators I have spoken to report that consumers are remaining loyal to outlets that offer value, and that's not just about lower prices."

* Peter Backman is the managing director of Horizons, the analyst and specialist information consultant for the foodservice and hospitality sector.

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