Chains like Chili's and Buffalo Wild Wings are failing because customers are changing their attitude toward healthy eating
On Monday, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released its annual list identifying the unhealthiest restaurant meals in America. Chains leading the way include Texas Roadhouse, Chili's, and Buffalo Wild Wings.
While fast food has received plenty of flack from nutrition-savvy critics, the biggest culprits when it comes to calories, salt, and fat are often sit-down, casual dining joints.
A Big Mac contains 540 calories. Buffalo Wild Wings' Cheese Curd Bacon Burger contains 1,620 - before you add fries or sides.
If you compare the items on CSPI's list to what up-and-coming chains are serving, the differences between the menus are clear. Health-centric chains like Cava Grill and Dig Inn have won over customers and investors with lower-calorie options highlighting fresh ingredients. The fast-casual market is on the rise and is expected to reach $66.9 billion by 2020, according to the market-research company Technavio.
"They have more of a healthy perception, there's quicker service times," Wedbush analyst Colin Radke told Business Insider in March. "The healthiness and the speed of service - that's been taking market share from casual dining."
Many of the brands on CSPI's list - such as Chili's and Buffalo Wild Wings - have faced sales slumps and dozens of restaurant closures in recent months. The high-calorie, high-sodium foods simply aren't drawing in customers like they once were.
That isn't to say that casual-dining chains don't have healthy options. Most of them - Chili's included - have a "lighter fare" menu, which tends to include somewhat uninspired takes on salads or grilled chicken and fish dishes. But, these dishes often seem to simply be watered-down version of their calorie-packed menu partners.
Also notable is the fact that some chains are still convincing customers to purchase less-than-healthy items.
While Chili's and Buffalo Wild Wings have struggled recently, Texas Roadhouse - ranking No. 1 on CSPI's list for its 2,820-calorie prime rib, loaded sweet potato, and Caesar salad - has been thriving. On Monday, the company reported same-store sales had grown 4% at company-owned restaurants in the last quarter.
The issue isn't simply a matter of calories. It's having a menu that feels fresh and appeals to customers.
Calorie bombs like Cheese Curd Bacon Burgers and huge plates of smoked meat aren't making the cut.
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