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I ate at chains like Texas Roadhouse, Cheesecake Factory, Olive Garden and saw how casual dining bounced back in 2021

Texas Roadhouse.

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

  • Casual dining surged back in 2021 after years of decline.
  • I ate at Olive Garden, Texas Roadhouse, and other chains to see why.
  • Customers seemed to like affordable drinks, large portions, and cozy interiors this year. 

I eat a lot of food for my job as a fast food and restaurants reporter, and this year I saw first hand how casual dining came back stronger than ever, especially as many customers were able to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

After a year of precarious business and customers who were unsure about returning to indoor dining, sales are booming at casual chains, and my personal experiences lined up with the broad trends. 

I made my first visit to Texas Roadhouse in September, and the western-themed chain totally blew me away. Cozy and kitschy decor combined with huge portions and delicious food won me over. The famous rolls and butter were a great start to the meal, and cheap drinks were a nice bonus.

That was my first time in a busy, crowded restaurant environment in over a year, and it was intoxicating. I completely understood why customers were flocking back to Texas Roadhouse, where they could eat a steak cooked to their exact specifications, have a gigantic margarita, and feel like things were back to normal.

Olive Garden pastaOlive Garden sales are up.

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Then in October, I went to Olive Garden for pasta, soup, and breadsticks. The cozy, Tuscan Farmhouse decor looked just as I’d remembered it, and the breadsticks were as warm and greasy as ever. The chain cut menus in 2020, but there was still plenty to choose from. Even as it offers fewer promotions and considering scrapping the seasonal Never Ending Pasta bowl, I still found it easy to leave full of hearty food for a fairly low price. 

I was less impressed by my visits to The Cheesecake Factory and Golden Corral, but plenty of customers disagreed with me as both chains are seeing demand spike back up.

At Texas Roadhouse, same-store sales are up over 30% over 2020, which were of course low because of COVID-19, but they’re also up 22.3% over 2019 levels, according to Q3 earnings. Visits are up too, according to Placer.ai, indicating more customers are visiting the chain and are spending more money. 

Same-store sales are up over 29% at Olive Garden, parent company Darden reported in its most recent earnings call, and monthly visits have been hovering around 2019 levels and even surpassing them. Other casual chains including The Cheesecake Factory and Longhorn Steakhouse are seeing similar bumps in sales.

The return to casual dining is even more impressive given headlines over the last decade proclaiming the death of casual dining and millennials killing chains like Applebee’s. The pandemic gave a boost to these flagging casual chains when sales initially dropped before soaring back. As unlikely as it seems, maybe a few months stuck inside, without access to unlimited breadsticks or a charming few hours inside Texas Roadhouse, reminded Americans how much they really love these minor luxuries. 

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at [email protected]

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