NEW YORK -- Chain restaurant operators have their sights set on the takeout business as an avenue for growth, according to an industry survey.
Fifty-one percent reported sales stayed the same compared with 1995, and only 2% claimed a reduction in those sales.
The survey, Foodtrends '97, conducted for Thomas Food Industry Register and Find/SVP, focused on two specific subsegments of the restaurant trade. Researchers interviewed executives from 100 full-service family restaurant chains (which feature sit-down service and a fairly wide-ranging menu) and 100 dinner house chains (which offer more limited, specialized foods such as seafood, steaks or ethnic specialties).
Executives at more than 60% of those restaurants that offer takeout food said they expect that segment of the restaurant business to continue growing in the coming year.
Among restaurants that deliver, 78% of the executives said they expect their delivery business to grow this year.
The most popular reported categories sold in takeout and delivery were complete meals (37%) and entrees (35%).
Chicken menu items continue to show strength in chain restaurants, with 60% reporting increased chicken sales. Forty-six percent reported increased pasta sales, and 41% increased dessert sales.
Healthy menu items also showed strength, with 39% of survey participants saying they anticipate selling more healthy items than last year, and 51% saying they expect such sales to stay the same.
More broadly, the traditional menu items typically grouped under the umbrella of "comfort foods" were shown in the survey still to have solid footing in the two food-service chain segments. Nearly half of the chains reported having "comfort foods" on the menu, and 35% of those operators said they are serving more of such items than they did a year ago. In addition, 60% said the level of sales of comfort foods is holding steady.
A majority of the chain operators said they would not venture beyond whatever ethnic-food segments they are currently positioned in, with 60% saying they will not introduce new ethnic selections to their menus.
The researchers said that response might reflect a reluctance among restaurant chains, in today's competitive environment, to jeopardize their brand identification with a specific niche by expanding their selection beyond that niche, especially since menus tend to play an integral role in their branding.
Among the respondents who said they would introduce new ethnic items, however, Italian and Tex-Mex were cited most often as the areas into which they would expand.
Beef, seafood and pasta were each mentioned as an important concentration by a significant proportion of the survey universe.
Of those operators who serve beef, 32% said they are serving more beef than last year. Of those carrying fish, 37% said they are serving more fish. Among pasta servers, 46% said they are serving more than a year ago.
Although commonly named as an important strategy for the future, co-branding is not universal among chain restaurant operators, according to the survey. Only about a third said they participate in co-branding promotions. When they do, inserting the co-branding partner's logo into the menu was named as the most common promotion, by 67% of operators who do co-branding. Close to half use tent cards and one in four use other point-of-purchase materials.
The chain operators named employee recruitment and training as their biggest challenge for the coming year, cited by 36%. Nineteen percent said competition was the biggest challenge, while 15% said it was the cost of food and supplies. Another 15% said improving customer service was the biggest challenge, and 10% said it was the quality of the food.
One in three chain restaurants now offers home delivery. Most of those operators expect their delivery business to increase during the course of the year.