Restaurant chains roll out small bites at small prices

Some of the nation’s most familiar casual-dining chains are suddenly thinking smaller.

They’re rolling out tapas-like small plates of shareable items that typically are cheaper than appetizers by a buck or two — or even three.

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With business still in the tank — and customers hard to lure out of the I-can-eat-cheaper-at-home mentality — a cadre of casual-dining icons, including Houlihan’s, Cheesecake Factory, California Pizza Kitchen and BJ’s Restaurants, are trying to boost business with value-priced items to be passed around the table.

To draw attention to these trendy plates, most of the chains market them on separate menus. It seems to be working.

The move comes at a time when the $75 billion casual-dining business — and the restaurant industry overall — continues to suffer.

For the most recent month available, 57% of restaurants reported a same-store sales decline in January from a year ago — worse than the 49% in December, says the National Restaurant Association.

Casual-dining chains are trying just about anything. They’re particularly eager to attract socially minded Millennials who are just as comfortable sharing a plate of food as they are sharing social media.

“This is how the next generation is eating,” says Bob Hartnett, CEO at Houlihan’s, which just rolled out 23 small-plate items. “And we’re in the business of giving people what they want. If we don’t give it to them, they’ll find someone else who will.”

Small plates at Houlihan’s fetch from $3 for Truckstop Fries covered in chipotle cheese sauce to $10 for a grilled 4-ounce filet mignon with Parmesan garlic sauce. The best-selling small plate: $3.50 mini-burgers.

The items are boosting sales. In the key test market of Kansas City, small plates accounted for 28% of items sold, Hartnett says. Others in the mix:

•California Pizza Kitchen. Its “small cravings” menu rolled out last month, and it’s driving business and boosting check averages, says Larry Flax, co-founder of the 216-unit chain. Flax says that he watched the success that Cheesecake Factory had with small plates.

While appetizers at the chain go for up to $10, the small cravings items top out at $4.99.

•Cheesecake Factory. The chain introduced “small plates and snacks” one year ago, and they have added incremental sales, says Mark Mears, marketing chief. The items, $3.95 to $6.95, are a “low-risk way for guests to try new tastes,” Mears says.

•BJ’s. The chain introduced six “snacks and small bites” this month, priced at $2.95 to $3.95. The items, including Gourmet Mac & Cheese and Hawaiian Shrimp Skewers, “are big on flavor and small on price,” boasts Matt Hood, BJ’s marketing chief.

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