How Polished Casual Brands Blur the Lines Between Segments

By Kerri Adams, Editor-at-Large

Even though segments like quick-serve and fast casual are being elevated with a better quality of food and service, consumers often look for something more than decent food and pricing when it comes to their dining experience.

They want the whole package– a high-level of service and food, along with a comfortable atmosphere.

Many casual dining chains are struggling to offer this. With that in mind, we have noticed a sub-segment emerge in the industry, in between casual dining and fine dining.

These polished casual restaurants are elevating the culinary experience for guests, so much so that they are blurring the lines between casual dining and fine dining.

They offer a refined atmosphere, superior food offerings, and especially attentive service. When a diner enters these restaurants, they can easily see that they are in a category above a Chili’s or Applebee’s.  

We decided to sit down with two restaurateurs at the helm of two polished casual concepts–Kevin Harron, president and CEO of Burtons Grill and Stephen Lyons, vice president of culinary operations at Matchbox american kitchen + spirit to see how these restaurants stay levels above the rest of the casual dining segment. 

Foodable: Can you tell us a little about your concepts?

Stephen Lyons: Matchbox has a hand-built, real wood-burning oven in the center of every Matchbox—it burns at 800 degrees, we cook lots of stuff in there in addition to pizzas and once the fire is lit for the first time, it never goes out.

We built our fame on pizzas and mini-burgers—plenty of people come to Matchbox for our incredible mini-burgers (hand pattied angus beef on a freshly-baked brioche bun, available in orders of 3, 6 or 9, all topped with a huge pile of our magnificent onion straws) and our imaginative pizzas, cooked in a real wood-burning oven, with just enough of that authentic char to make you say, “perfect.”

We also have an incredibly varied menu, ranging from the casual to the culinary—choose a pizza, salad, sandwich, a plate of mini-burgers or a ginormous meatball and keep things simple, or go for it with the mustard crusted salmon, braised short ribs and more.

Kevin Herron: I was in casual dining for the first 15 years. Houston’s was one of the first players in the arena that behaved like a multi-unit restaurant company, but provided quality and consistency at a higher level. They focused on mainstream American food.

We built our brand in the early 2000s and it grew up with the baby boomers, which are looking for restaurants that are casual, but provide better ingredients. The consumer wanted flexibility, customization, a freshly prepared meal and polished service, not formal service but service where the waiter wasn’t chewing gum while introducing themselves to the table. Rather, the service would be catered to the event, whether It be a business lunch, which needed a more stand-off style yet efficient service to people celebrating who may want a more engaging experience.

We tried to build a brand that would have flexibility on product and menu. We are very strong on allergy awareness. For years, restaurants just did what they did, whether the customer liked it or not. But, in the polished segment we recognize what the customer wants. 

Foodable: What is it about your restaurants that keeps diners coming back for more?

Lyons: Culinary Excellence, Knowledgeable Service, Gracious Hospitality.

Herron: It’s a number of things, including value. We sometimes call it habitual consistency, where we want to be able to deliver the same thing over and over again. Like I said, it’s the customization and flexibility that we can accommodate the individual’s needs. 

Again, on the allergy side of things, people feel like we’re a very safe place to eat for themselves or their family. We also have a loyalty program, about 43% of all our diners have a loyalty card. That’s a good thing for them and a good thing for us. People go back to restaurants they trust. People go back to restaurants they like, where they get what they want.

Foodable: How does your brand elevate the diner's experience to fit into this more upscale sector of casual dining? 

Lyons: This 'sub-segment' is a direct result of the consumers' growing interest and knowledge of food and their expectations of today’s restaurant experience. We at Matchbox focus on how we make people feel. We strive for a dialogue with our guests, not just a simple service monologue.

Herron: It’s the quality of the ingredients. It really starts with that. Some people appreciate quality of the food and some people appreciate that volume of food. We try to make sure we deliver on both.

We also have an innovative menu, where we do things totally mainstream like serve you a hamburger with some the best French fries you ever ate.