Still Cookin’: America May Never Quit Eating at These Struggling Restaurants

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

Can you imagine a world without Olive Garden? Or without Chili’s, McDonald’s, or Wendy’s? Perhaps you can, and you’ve come to terms with the fact that American dining has been forever altered by a combination of rising costs, changing consumer tastes, and waning enthusiasm for microwaved entrees. The simple truth is that a lot of classic American restaurants are failing to attract customers. There are a number of reasons for this (microwave usage being one of them), but we’re in actual danger of seeing many culinary staples go out of business.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few beats left in those dead hearts, however. While much has been written and said about the deaths of these restaurant chains, many have contingency plans. Or, they’re throwing out the old playbook and adapting. No matter what they’re doing, these restaurants and the business teams behind them are finding ways to survive.

Not only that, but there are hordes of customers that just can’t seem to quit eating at these places. Be it an Olive Garden, a Denny’s, or even an Arby’s, America doesn’t seem willing to let these places die. And considering the number of people these restaurants employ and the relative value they give to a community, that’s a good thing.

Here are some classic American chains that are refusing to go quietly into the night — and in some cases, are swinging back with a vengeance.

1. Olive Garden

Darden Restaurants, the owner of the Olive Garden chain, knows what America wants. Evidently, it’s breadsticks and unfathomable amounts of pasta. Though Olive Garden has been the poster child for struggling restaurants in recent years, the chain is breaking through with some creative promotions and by sticking to its bread and butter — literally. As a result, the chain is beating sales forecasts and more customers are heading back in for dinner.

Next: Another Darden classic.

2. 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

  • Seafood chain Red Lobster is also making comeback, despite having been sold by Darden Restaurants a few years ago.

Where do you go for seafood in Kearney, Nebraska? The answer, in all likelihood, is Red Lobster. Like Olive Garden, Red Lobster had become something of a joke for serious diners, but it, too, is making a comeback. In fact, it’s been hailed as one of the millennials’ favorite restaurants, against all odds. How are they doing it? Unlimited shrimp, for one. And of course, a focus on its signature dish: Lobster.

Next: You’ll never see a barbie at this restaurant sans shrimp.

3. Outback Steakhouse

Outback Steakhouse

Despite the fact that the food is not at all Australian. | RiverNorthPhotography/iStock/Getty Images

  • Look out, mate, because Outback Steakhouse has a plan to win back your business.

Like Olive Garden’s parent company, Bloomin’ Brands Inc., which owns Outback Steakhouse, is beating sales forecasts. The Outback chain is another which went through a very tough time during the past recession and is currently clawing its way back. How do they plan to do it? By scaling back on its marketing and promotions, expanding delivery options, and by renovating and relocating struggling stores. The Bloomin’ Onion, of course, is its ace in the hole.

Next: A popular chain that’s getting back to its roots.

4. Chili’s

Chili's mango chicken

They’re going back to their signature items. | Chili’s Grill & Bar via Facebook

  • Chili’s plan to drive customers to the door? Offer them less.

Your town might have a Chili’s, but it’s probably been a long time since you seriously considered eating there. Chili’s suffers from an issue that many of its competitors suffer from: They offer too much stuff. You can get tacos, burgers, lasagna, and so on. But why go to Chili’s, then, if it’s all the same stuff? The chain is turning things around based on that premise. Reports say Chili’s is shrinking its menu by 40% to win back customers. And don’t forget about the Baby Back Ribs.

Next: A chain that’s scaled way back in recent years.

5. Roy Rogers

Roy-Rogers-Restaurant

The chain is slowly expanding again. | Jonesdr77/Wikimedia Commons

  • Regional fast-food chain Roy Rogers has all but disappeared in many markets — but not for long.

Roy Rogers himself may have died back in the late ’90s, but the fast-food chain that bears his name isn’t going to slip away as quietly. The east coast chain has contracted considerably since its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, and now, the company’s leadership is planning to blitz diners with a fierce comeback campaign. Years ago, there were as many as 650 locations; Today, there are only 54. But look for new restaurants in a town near you in coming years.

Next: Drake’s favorite.

6. The Cheesecake Factory

Cheesecake Factory restaurant exterior

Sales are down but not too badly. | tupungato/iStock/Getty Images

Yet another big chain restaurant that seems to offer just about everything — including cheesecake, naturally — The Cheesecake Factory isn’t going anywhere. Its sales have been down as of late, but like so many other restaurants operating in the same space, The Cheesecake Factory does have a strategy to stick around for the long term. If you’ve ever been, you know that the line is almost always out the door, which should send a message, too.

Next: This chain’s Canadian counterpart has performed much better than the American version.

7. A&W

A&W Restaurant

They’re expected to bounce back this year. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

  • Do A&W’s hopes “float” on America’s desire for root beer?

You may not have an A&W in your town, but the chain is another on our list that’s expecting to mount a comeback. Sales are expected to improve this year, as are revenues and profits. American stores are hoping to emulate the success of their Canadian counterparts, which operate separately and have continued to grow and push revenues while American locations stagnated.

Next: The golden arches.

8. McDonald’s

McDonald's restaurant sign

McDonald’s is jazzing up the menu. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

  • For a while there, McDonald’s was stuck in a stagnant cycle. No more, however.

McDonald’s has managed to win America back, somehow. For a period of time, the chain was struggling with high food and labor costs and had to compensate by cutting the famous Dollar Menu out and experiment with new offerings (like mozzarella sticks). But they’ve righted the ship by introducing new craft sandwiches and by returning to its roots — the Dollar Menu is rumored to be coming back soon, along with a $2 and $3 menu.

Next: A restaurant that’s back from the dead.

9. Steak and Ale

Steak and Ale Restaurant

They were extinct but are scheduled for a comeback. | Xnatedawgx/Wikimedia Commons

  • The Steak and Ale chain was dead for a decade. But it’s coming back.

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

Next: A pizza chain that disappeared for a while.

10. Little Caesar’s

Little Caesar's Pizza restaurant

It’s holding its ground for now.| Mrmiscellanious/Wikimedia Commons

  • Another company that seemed to fall off the face of the Earth, Little Caesar’s is back and once again a player in the pizza wars.

Little Caesar’s was a big pizza chain in the early and mid-’90s. But then, it disappeared — at least in many parts of the country. Little Caesar’s is back, though. And it’s bringing $5 “hot-n-ready” pizzas to communities across the country. So, the brand is back. But the question is whether or not it can hold its ground in an increasingly saturated market. Plus, it’s up against a company that’s been on fire in recent years — which we’ll get to next.

Next: A pizza chain that’s firing on all cylinders.

11. Domino’s

Dominos

Their stock is soaring. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Domino’s has done a hell of a job reinventing itself behind new company leadership. Previously, they were the standard go-to delivery chain. But after making over its stores, reinventing its products, and experimenting with new pricing schemes, Domino’s is wrecking the pizza market. And its stock price is out of control, beating many of the big tech companies over the past seven years.

Next: Home of the Blizzard

12. Dairy Queen

They have competition everywhere. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

  • For a while there, DQ seemed to be on the D-cline.

If it seems like Dairy Queens aren’t as ubiquitous as they once were, it’s because they aren’t. The one-time go-to for ice cream and dairy treats as met competition on all fronts — for its Blizzards (McFlurries), hamburgers and hotdogs (everyone), and more. So, how is the company handling it? By going back in time and resurrecting cult ’90s hits. But the company has its sights set higher than just competing; It wants to be the best.

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

13. Denny’s

Its low prices are what wins most people over. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

You can’t go wrong selling Grand Slams, and Denny’s is proving that they can still compete with its lineup of classics. As many chains have struggled, Denny’s is holding strong. Like other chains, Denny’s is competing for customers in an incredibly saturated market, but relatively low prices combined with a nostalgic factor are keeping the brand alive and thriving.

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

14. Taco Bell

Taco Bell restaurant

Despite its former reputation, things are looking up. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Taco Bell

  • If one chain is throwing the kitchen sink at its competitors, it’s Taco Bell.

Taco Bell used to have the same problem as many other fast-food and casual chains. It simply wasn’t very good — and it’s core products, Mexican dishes, weren’t very “Mexican” at all. But Taco Bell is killing it despite its challenges. In fact, the company has embraced them. It’s catering to a younger demographic and is competing in spaces that it used to stay out of, like breakfast.

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

15. 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 big PR disasters lately. But is America really going to turn its back on its favorite burrito-builder?

Denver-based Chipotle had experienced astronomical growth over the past several years until bouts of foodborne illness put a real damper on its prospects. PR crises aside, Chipotle still has a monstrous presence around the country and is well-positioned going into the future. It’s one of the most talked about “fast-casual” chains that are taking business from traditional sit-down and fast food joints, and though it’s had its problems, it’s hard to imagine Chipotle going belly-up.

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