From Burger King to Ruby Tuesday, Restaurants Struggle to Find 'Just Right'

Last Updated Feb 24, 2009 5:35 PM EST

Casual dining chains used to hold a secure place between cheap fast-food restaurants and expensive gourmet options. They held the middle, the perfect mixture of price and quality that Goldilocks might have proclaimed "just right."

But the economic downturn is changing things. Goldilocks has had her hours cut back, and it's not so clear anymore just what she's looking for. Both types of restaurants are evolving in an attempt to find and embody the new definition of the happy medium.

Goldilocks used to eat out without thinking twice about it, but now she often decides it's more prudent to eat at home. So chains like Ruby Tuesday and T.G.I. Friday's are offering two-for-one deals to lure her out again.

And Goldilocks used to look down her nose at fast-food chains, but with money this tight, Burger King thinks it can win her over with a new extra-thick burger.

For "someone who was having a premium burger at an Applebee's or a Chili's that's paying $9 to $11 dollars and can come to Burger King for a Steakhouse Extra Thick burger and pay $5 to $6 dollars, that's value to them," Burger King Chief Executive John Chidsey said at a Deutsche Bank conference last week.
Pizza chains have lost their secure "just right" spot as well. Customers looking to save pennies can find cheaper options at burger joints like McDonald's, while true pizza fans are turning to smaller chains for gourmet options like caramelized onions and wine lists. So the big pizza players are trying to redefine themselves too -- Pizza Hut by emphasizing natural ingredients and adding pasta to its menu, and Domino's by entering the sandwich market.

McDonald's is offering lattes and Jack in the Box is introducing mini sirloin burgers.

"The lines between a QSR and a casual diner, from a product standpoint, are starting to blur," Goldman Sachs restaurant analyst Steven Kron said, referring to quick-service restaurants, jargon for fast-food chains.
But though those lines may be blurred, they're far from broken. A premium burger still doesn't turn Burger King into a sit-down restaurant with table service. It may work for now, but when Goldilocks gets back on her feet again, her version of "just right" may return to where it was.
  • Katherine Glover