On Sunday we went to Bella Italia at Cribbs Causeway for lunch. It’s a chain I’ve not been to in years (I genuinely can’t remember the last time…), but we had Tesco ClubCard vouchers – hastily converted before they lost some of their conversion value in mid-June – to spend.
The bill for one starter, one flatbread, two mains, two drinks (one alcoholic, one non-alcoholic) and a kids’ meal came to just shy of £60. We weren’t expecting a gourmet meal by any means. The starter (cheese-filled gnocchi bites, £7.29) was ok. The mozzarella and garlic flatbread (£6.99) was decent. The spicy sausage pasta (£14.79) was a bit off in terms of the ratio of pasta to sauce, while my chicken Milanese (£16.29), served with tomato spaghetti and complete with a little jug of garlic butter to drizzle over the chicken, filled a hole.
It was a meal that was edible, but pretty average. And you know what? We could have eaten at an independent like Pasta Ripiena for the same price…but of course, we were at Bella Italia on a Clubcard deal.
So, with quality much better at many independent restaurants, and with prices pretty much the same, why do people still visit casual dining chain restaurants? And what does their future look like?
Why are casual dining chains so popular?
Caveat: while I say “so popular” in that subhead, many casual dining chains – like our independent restaurants – are struggling in the current economic climate. That said, though, many of them do seem busy when I walk past at lunch or dinner time…and I think there are a few key reasons why people choose them.
1. Special offers
Our meal at Bella Italia (well, the food, at least) was paid for mostly by Tesco Clubcard vouchers, converted into restaurant vouchers. Before mid-June 2023 the exchange rate was generous: £1 of Clubcard points could be converted to £3 of vouchers for the restaurant of your choice. The offer’s still available, but with £1 of Clubcard points now giving you £2 of restaurant vouchers, it’s no longer quite so attractive a deal.
The list of participating restaurants includes Bella Italia, Zizzi, PizzaExpress, ASK, Café Rouge and Prezzo, among others.
Even if you don’t have a Clubcard (or don’t want to redeem your points in this way), you’ll still find plenty of special offers for UK casual dining chains. When you sign up to the PizzaExpress Club you’ll receive free dough balls on your first visit and collect stamps which build up for further rewards. The Nando’s Card works in a similar way. The YO! Love Club gives you £5 off at YO! Sushi when you sign up, followed by 1 point for every subsequent £1 you spend (50 points = £5 off your bill).
Vouchercloud features plenty of casual dining restaurants on its website, with 2-for-1 deals, percentage discounts and more, while those who are signed up to tastecard can take advantage of similar offers.
You’ll generally find casual dining chain restaurants on busy shopping streets, in shopping centres, in retail parks…basically, in places where there’s loads of footfall – plus activities other than going out to eat.
The Cribbs Causeway branch of Bella Italia that we visited, for example, is part of the Venue Leisure Complex, which is also home to a Vue Cinema, a Hollywood Bowl and the recently-opened Mulligans, where you can enjoy crazy golf, electro darts and more.
In the same complex you’ll also find branches of Chiquito, TGI Fridays, Frankie & Benny’s, Nando’s and Las Iguanas – yes, plenty of casual dining restaurants within a stone’s throw of each other.
It makes total sense. After a few games of bowling or before a family cinema trip, why not make a meal out part of the experience?
Most kids have a limited attention span. I don’t want to have to resort to fast food every time I go out to eat…but similarly, I know that if my youngest son is too tired or too distracted, going out for a “proper” meal with him is NOT a fun experience.
Most, if not all, of the UK’s casual dining chain restaurants are pretty well geared up for kids. They have baby-changing facilities. They have highchairs. They have activity sheets and crayons or pencils (Bella Italia did, but we weren’t actually given one when we were seated, which was a shame).
They also have kids’ menus which are generally pretty reasonably priced: at Bella Italia, my son enjoyed doughballs with cucumber and pepper sticks to start, a pizza with two toppings for his main, a carton of juice plus an ice lolly for £6.49).
Service is also generally pretty speedy, which is important with young children around. The longer the waiting time, the more likely it is that they’ll get bored and start playing up…well, it’s true for mine, at least.
But are these benefits enough to keep casual dining chains going when there’s so much competition out there, when consumers are being more selective about where they go to eat, and when the cost of living is so high?
The future of casual dining chains in the UK
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (and subsequent challenging trading conditions in more recent years), a number of UK casual dining brands have been forced to close some of their sites. 40 Carluccio’s sites were shut down in 2020 – and in the same year, 35 Bella Italia restaurants, 32 Cafe Rouge sites and 11 branches of Las Iguanas were closed by owner The Casual Dining Group.
More recently, The Restaurant Group (TRG) closed down 18 Frankie & Benny’s sites in 2023, as well as four branches of Chiquitos.
And this is just a small sample of chain restaurant closures over the last few years.
In 2022, Gordon Ramsay famously stated, without naming any change, that the industry was ridding itself of “shitholes in a prime position and taking advantage because they’re in a great location, and they’ve got the footfall”. He added that lockdowns had encouraged more people to cook at home, learning new skills such as making their own sourdough, thereby appreciating good food even more.
That’s not to say that it’s bad news for all UK casual dining chains. Wagamama owner TRG had originally planned to open five new sites next year: a number it has revised upwards to eight based on strong trading performance. Las Iguanas has plans to open up to 30 new sites over the next few years.
It’s smaller chains, though, like Pizza Pilgrims and Mowgli, that seem to be showing the biggest growth ambitions. Perhaps the public trusts/is more excited about smaller businesses than the tired chains that have been around for years, and that are commonplace across the UK?
The fact that a number of the big casual dining chains are diversifying suggests that their current operations may not be sustainable in this climate. Zizzi launched a range of ready meals into supermarkets in 2022, while multiple chains launched “dark kitchens” during and post-pandemic, using spare capacity to provide a delivery service under a different name. You may have seen Coco di Mama on Just Eat or Deliveroo…but did you know it’s actually the Azzurri Group’s Zizzi and ASK Italian restaurants who make the food? LEON, meanwhile, has opened a drive-thru restaurant just outside Leeds.
Meanwhile, the independent restaurant sector is up and down: while there are plenty of restaurants closing (La Grotta and The Ethicurean being just two of the most recent casualties in the Bristol area), there are also new places springing up all over the place.
63% of consumers surveyed by KPMG in March 2023 said they plan to cut back on meals out – the biggest sector for non-essential cutbacks. With the same survey revealing that 69% of consumers are unwilling to compromise on quality, how will the UK’s casual dining chains fare compared to their independent counterparts, who often offer meals for similar prices?