These Struggling American Restaurants Are Fighting to Survive

Can you imagine a world without Olive Garden or McDonald’s? Changing consumer tastes — like favoring local eateries over national chains — are hurting American staples. However, the following restaurants won’t give up without a fight. One adaptable seafood restaurant may make it just yet (page 10).

1. Olive Garden

The Olive Garden Sign is on the rock exterior of the building
It is anything but authentic, but it’s still open.| ljhimages/iStock/Getty Images
  • Iconic dishes: Zuppa Toscana, Fettuccine Alfredo, and breadsticks
  • Saving grace: Olive Garden relaunched the Never Ending Pasta Pass, a “season pass” to unlimited pasta bowls for a single cost.
  • Good news: The chain expects same-store sales to grow 2% to 5% in fiscal 2019.

The poster child for struggling restaurants, Olive Garden is focusing on creative promotions and its bread and butter — literally. The chain is beating sales forecasts and many customers are returning for dinner.

Next: Do diners still want to go “down under”?

2. Outback Steakhouse

Outback Steakhouse
Despite the fact that the food is not at all Australian. | RiverNorthPhotography/iStock/Getty Images
  • Iconic dish: the Bloomin’ Onion
  • Saving grace: Outback locations either relocated or underwent a “multi-year exterior remodeling effort.”
  • Good news: Remodeled stores see about 4% growth in sales.

The owner of Outback Steakhouse, Bloomin’ Brands Inc., is beating sales forecasts after nearly dying during the last recession. It’s currently scaling back on promotions and expanding delivery options.

Next: A popular chain gets back to its roots.

3. Chili’s

Chili's mango chicken
They’re going back to their signature items. | Chili’s Grill & Bar via Facebook
  • Iconic dishes: Baby Back Ribs and the Triple Dipper (a customizable combo of three appetizers)
  • Saving grace: Chili’s is shrinking its overwhelming menu by 40%.

Reports say Chili’s is reducing offerings to win back customers and rebranding itself as a “grill” to entice health-focused diners.

Next: A pizza chain firing on all cylinders

4. Domino’s

Their stock is soaring. | Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • Iconic dish: Pepperoni Pizza
  • Saving grace: renovations, price adjustments, and digital sales
  • Good news: Domino’s stock has outperformed Google, Netflix, Apple, and Amazon over the past few years.

Domino’s rivals, like Papa John’s and Pizza Hut, underperform it by almost 10%. Behind new leadership, Domino’s has experimented with new prices and reinvented stores. It’s also generated more than 65% of sales via digital ordering channels. As Restaurant Business says, “[Domino’s] continues to demonstrate to the restaurant business how to do things.”

Next: This restaurant embraces the calories.

5. The Cheesecake Factory

Cheesecake Factory restaurant exterior
Sales are down but not too badly. | tupungato/iStock/Getty Images
  • Iconic dishes: Strawberry Cheesecake and Chicken Madeira
  • Saving grace: online ordering and delivery services
  • Good news: It ended 2018 with a 1.9% increase in same-store sales.

Better customer service also contributed to the California-based chain’s success as The Cheesecake Factory continues to build momentum into 2019.

Next: Known for classic food and wooden rocking chairs

6. Cracker Barrel

Cracker Barrel Old Country
We all recognize this front porch. | jetcityimage/Getty Images
  • Iconic dishes: Country Fried Steak and Chicken n’ Dumplings
  • Saving grace: embracing the restaurant-meets-general-store concept
  • Good news: Revenue rose from $2.68 billion in 2014 to $3.03 billion in 2018.

Known as a great family restaurant, Cracker Barrel provides affordable food with Southern charm. The chain’s business model continues to thrive as others in its category suffer. In fact, Cracker Barrel’s first quarter of 2019 showed continued sales growth, reports Business Insider.

Next: You’ll find one of these just about everywhere.

7. Denny’s

Its low prices are what wins most people over. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Iconic dish: Grand Slam Breakfast
  • Saving grace: low prices
  • Good news: Despite changing diner tastes, Denny’s sees growing sales.

Like other chains, Denny’s is competing for customers in an incredibly saturated market. However, the chain relies on its ability to compete with its lineup of classics.

Next: No actual macaroni on this Italian menu

8. Macaroni Grill

A kids meal at Macaroni Grill | Macaroni Grill
  • Iconic dishes: Pasta Milano and Sausage Rigatoni
  • Saving grace: cutting locations from 230 to 85 (plus 21 franchises)
  • Good news: The chain has improved overall sales, traffic, and margins.

Romano’s Macaroni Grill had one goal in 2018: to rebuild and stabilize the bankrupt brand. Now, its sales are on the rise, reports Restaurant Business, and it’s focusing on a new acquisition: Sullivan’s Steakhouse

Next: A chain that’s finding ways to innovate.

9. Taco Bell

Taco Bell restaurant
Despite its former reputation, things are looking up. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Taco Bell
  • Iconic dishes: Cheesy Gordita Crunch, Cinnamon Twists, and Crunchwrap Supreme
  • Saving grace: new menu items (like Nacho Fries)
  • Good news: a 5% increase in same-store sales in 2018

Many described Taco Bell as a stagnant fast-food company. Now, however, the Mexican chain gets an A+ for “world-class product innovation” and marketing strategy. Taco Bell has on-trend partnerships with brands like Forever 21 and Cheeto’s. The Harris Poll recently announced that Taco Bell as America’s favorite Mexican restaurant.

Next: This seafood restaurant is fighting back from near extinction.

10. Red Lobster

Red Lobster Sold To Golden Gate Capital For 2.1 Billion
Red Lobster has been named a favorite restaurant of millennials. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Iconic dishes: Cheddar Bay Biscuits and the “Endless Shrimp”
  • Saving grace: seafood promotions like Lobsterfest

Where do you go for seafood in landlocked cities? The answer is often Red Lobster. Despite being sold by Darden Restaurants a few years ago, it’s now being hailed as a favorite restaurant of millennials. How are they doing it? Unlimited shrimp and a focus on its signature dish: lobster.

Next: Will the golden arches ever die?

11. McDonald’s

McDonald's restaurant sign
McDonald’s is jazzing up the menu. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Iconic dishes: Big Mac and French fries
  • Saving grace: delivery, mobile ordering, and new menu items
  • Good news: Stock price and sales continue to grow in 2019.

McDonald’s announced an emergency “Turnaround Plan” in 2015, after seeing declining sales for six quarters. Overcoming high labor and food costs, McDonald’s can now thank its “new technology initiatives, customer experiences, and corporate responsibility,” reports QSR Magazine.

Next: This pizza chain disappeared for a while.

12. Little Caesar’s

Little Caesar's Pizza restaurant
It’s holding its ground for now.| Mrmiscellanious/Wikimedia Commons
  • Iconic dishes: Crazy Bread and Detroit-Style Deep Dish Pizza
  • Saving grace: promotions like $5 “Hot-N-Ready” pizzas

Little Caesar’s was big in the ’90s, then it disappeared from many U.S. regions. The pizza chain is back, though, and it’s bringing $5 “Hot-N-Ready” pizzas to more regions. The question is whether or not it can hold its ground in a saturated market. Little Caesar’s is once again a player in the pizza wars.

Next: Home of the beloved Blizzard

13. Dairy Queen

They have competition everywhere. | Win McNamee/Getty Images
  • Iconic dishes: Oreo Blizzard and Deluze Cheesebruger Lunch
  • Saving grace: rebranding as a “Grill & Chill”

A go-to for frozen treats, Dairy Queen now centers on the Grill & Chill menu, which includes hamburgers, hotdogs, and salads. It’s renovating stores, especially in target markets of Sacramento, California; Charlotte, North Carolina; Orlando, Florida; Rochester, New York; and Austin, Texas.

Next: This chain’s Canadian counterpart performs best.

14. A&W

A&W Restaurant
They’re expected to bounce back this year. | Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • Iconic dishes: A&W Coney Dog and draft root beer
  • Saving grace: focusing on standalone locations, not gas stations
  • Good news: A&W reported sales increases in 20 of the last 24 quarters, with 33% growth in same-store sales during that time.

With a 100-year anniversary in June 2019, A&W’s sales are expected to keep improving. The root beer purveyor opened 15 new locations in 2017, and nearly as many in 2018.

Next: Do you still eat at this East Coast chain?

15. Roy Rogers

Roy Rogers is slowly expanding again. | Jonesdr77/Wikimedia Commons
  • Iconic dishes: Original Crispy Chicken and Double-R Bar Burger
  • Saving grace: a mobile-friendly website and user-friendly app
  • Good news: Diners will see new llocationswith kiosks

The East Coast chain has shrunk since its heyday, with leadership cutting loose unwanted franchisees. There used to be 650 locations; today, there are 54. Roy Rogers has generated a fierce comeback, however. The chain’s next phase will introduce new locations and kiosks to make ordering easier.

Next: A restaurant attempting a resurrection

16. Steak and Ale

Steak and Ale Restaurant
They were extinct but are scheduled for a comeback. | Xnatedawgx/Wikimedia Commons
  • Iconic dishes: Prime Rib
  • Good news: The Steak and Ale chain is coming back.

Steak and Ale was another regional chain owned by the same company that runs Bennigans. It’s been extinct for a while, but there are plans to bring it back to the market. Don’t get too excited; the initial run will take place in Mexico. Some people hope to open a new location in the Dallas area.

Finally: A newer chain that keeps shooting itself in the foot.

17. Chipotle

Chipotle announced it will only use non-GMO ingredients in its food
Chipotle is still holding strong. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • Chipotle’s suffered some PR disasters lately. But will America really turn its back on its favorite burrito-builder?

Denver-based Chipotle had experienced enormous growth over the past several years — until foodborne illness put a real damper on its sales. PR crises aside, Chipotle still has a large presence for now. As one of the most talked about “fast-casual” chains, it’s still stealing business from traditional sit-down and fast-food joints. It’s hard to imagine Chipotle going belly-up.

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