Aspirational Dining Defined

Aspirational Dining

I am a Mac guy.  This means only the occasional interruption for updates from Microsoft.  These are most often for Word for Macs.  Yet in none of these updates have they added to my spell check dictionary words like “Barack Obama, Al Qaeda, or Facebook.”  If they do implement this change they can use this as my “Windows 27 was designed by me” testimonial. When they do develop this technology they should also add the word “aspirational” to my spell check.

The phrase “aspirational” has been used to describe many things you might find endorsed by Martha Stewart.  It is used to describe the desires of people to own, do, and consume things they view as entitlements of the rich.  Anything from a new luxury car to really expensive cheese can be labeled as “aspirational.”  They are the things we want even if we know they are not truly in our price range.  These are the adult versions of that cool bike you thought would bring you a lifetime of happiness as a kid.

Recently it has been used in a new context.  I am coming across the phrase “aspirtional dining” with greater frequency.  This is often touted as a new market segment that bridges the gap between fine dining and upscale casual dining. These restaurants promise all the trappings of fine dining without the pretense.  Their goal is to convey the idea that the middle class can dine at their restaurant, just as the wealthy do.  They are trying to represent the attainable end of fine dining.

The chains that fall into this segment are not new.  They have run restaurants with several hundred seats in major (and some not so major) metropolitan cities around the country for years.  They billed themselves as fine dining for the masses.  Their size, national reputation, and marketing prowess made them much more accessible than the smaller, chef-run, fine dining restaurants that they compete with.  They were a place to be seen and quickly became associated with where wealthy people ate.

Their success has been based on two equally important parts.

The first key to the success of these chains is that they kept their menus relatively accessible.  They did not compile menus around foie gras and escargot.  These restaurants do not represent the most forward thinking fusion cuisine and generally do not win culinary awards.  This allows them to reach out to the masses that find a great deal of cutting edge culinary arts snooty and pretentious.  Premium steaks and fresh seafood dominate their menus.  This makes guests feel confident in their choices.  They sell at a premium price what the guests already recognize as a premium product.

This enabled the second key to their success: expanding the market place.  These restaurants did not simply compete with the established chef run fine dining restaurants.  Instead they went after a large part of the upscale casual market.  They created the idea that they were a step above upscale dining, but still attainable.  They billed themselves as the place for your special occasion.  From Prom to your 80th Anniversary, they will be there to celebrate with you.  They don’t try to be the place you eat at every night, just every night you want to make special.  They expanded the market by raising the guests’ expectations of a celebratory dinner and the price tag that comes with it.

There can be no doubt that many of these chains found a great deal of success in this market segment.  They built restaurants that seat hundreds in upscale shopping and tourist areas around the country.  Their scope leads to a multiplier effect of sorts.  A guest that loves the location in their city will often entertain business guests at another location while traveling to a different city.  The couple that got engaged at a restaurant in one city will eat at the same chain in a different city on their honeymoon.  In time, their largess became their best marketing.

This lead to a push for continued growth.  As new locations began popping up in smaller cities and suburbs, they were viewed as ways to introduce a larger audience to the concept.  These locations were seen to have the added benefit of driving sales to other locations as well.  The beginning and middle of the last decade represented a boom for these restaurants.  Easy credit to the companies fueled a building boom.  Easy credit to consumers fueled the ability to dine at these restaurants.  Analysts predicted their continued growth and stock prices shot up.

That was until all the credit dried up.  In part two, I will address how “aspirational dining” concepts addressed the economic downturn.  How do these chains survive when frugality becomes a virtue again?  Will their short-term solutions actually lead to their long-term demise?  Will the chains ever return to their former stature or will they be relegated to the upscale casual market segment as many before them have been?

In the meantime, what are your thoughts on this segment?  Which brand did you have in your head while you read this post?  These are generic observations about a market segment comprised of many different restaurant concepts.  Which one would you call “aspirational”?  Do you have picks for which ones will survive or which will be the first to fail?  The comments are open for you.  Come back tomorrow to see my predictions on the future of this market segment.

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About David Hayden

David Hayden is a restaurant marketing and training consultant based in Kansas City, MO. He writes a series of 9 blogs collectively known as The Hospitality Formula Network and is the author of "Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips" and "Building Your Brand With Facebook"

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  • http://jjsinkck.blogspot.com jjskck

    When you said “premium steaks and seafood”, Capital Grille and Chart House were the chains that came to mind for me. They’re usually located in a high-traffic, touristy area where you would expect a majority of the patrons to be visitors and businessfolk.

    Really, “aspirational” depends on where you’re at on the money ladder: as a teenager, my family’s “special” dinners were at Applebee’s.

    • http://tipsfortips.wordpress.com tipsfortips

      This is true as well. If you make $40k a year, a $100 meal is proportionately the same as a $1000 meal to someone who makes $400k. My family went to Red Lobster for mom’s birthday when I was a kid. I remember telling my high school sweetheart to get dressed up and I was going to take her for a nice meal. She was unimpressed as we were the two most overdressed people in the Red Lobster lobby. I wonder how much of that was perception as a child and how much was them changing their concept.

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