Updated from July 20 to include Dunkin' Donuts second-quarter earnings.
People are buying new appliances and cars amid an improvement in the job market and a rise in stock prices. But the spending momentum apparently hasn't found its way into restaurants this year.
Total restaurant industry traffic was flat in the first quarter, according to the latest data from research firm NPD. Even the historically hot fast-casual sector -- led by names such as Chipotle (CMG) - Get Report and Panera Bread (PNRA) -- was sluggish in the first quarter as traffic levels were unchanged from the prior year.
"There is a confluence of changing demographics, economic pressures and evolving consumer attitudes and behaviors creating shifts in what, where, when and how we eat," said Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst.
Share prices for some of the biggest restaurant chains have subsequently taken a hit.
Shares of Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD) have dropped 14% year to date, DineEquity (DIN) - Get Report (owner of Applebee's and IHOP) has shed 3.1% and Brinker International (EAT) - Get Report , which operates Chili's and Maggiano's, has lost 0.3%. The S&P 500 is up roughly 6% on the year.
On Thursday, shares of coffee and donuts giant Dunkin Brands Group (DNKN) - Get Report fell as much as 4% following mixed second-quarter results. Dunkin' reported that net sales for the second-quarter rose 2.3% from the prior year to $216.3 million. Analysts expected sales of $220.2 million. Earnings, adjusted for one-time items, gained 14% year over year to 57 cents a share, narrowly beating Wall Street estimates of 56 cents.
Sales growth at Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins cooled from the first-quarter, missing analysts' expectations.
With traffic weak and share prices under pressure, TheStreet takes a brief look at how traditional restaurants are trying to regain momentum.
After all, the economy is doing OK and people should be eating out, right?
1. Brinker International
Chili's hopes taking a step back in time will help reverse an unsavory stretch of sales.
As the video shows, Chili's recently debuted a craft burger menu at its over 1,500 locations, featuring massive grass-fed beef patties and toppings such as a cage-free eggs and double doses of bacon.
Chili's says that burgers were a staple on its menu when the brand launched in Dallas, Tex., back in 1975, and it wants to remind diners of that after years of selling Tex Mex-inspired fare and promoting baby back ribs.
The chain also added a new margarita infused with peaches, and plans to debut craft beer taps in some locations to cater to the booming interest in more unique brews.
Indeed, Chili's could use a burger-related boost. Same-store sales at Chili's have declined for four straight quarters. As of June 2, same-store sales at Chili's company-owned locations were down 2%.
DineEquity is looking to put some sizzle back into the sales at its Applebee's restaurant chain after several challenging quarters. And like Chili's, it is using the allure of protein-packed beef to get people through the doors.
Over the past few months, Applebee's has replaced its gas grills with new wood-fired grills that use American oak at all of its 1,900 U.S. locations.
As the video discusses, the move has changed the taste and flavor profile of about 40% of the items on the Applebee's menu. Applebee's has also transitioned to selling USDA Choice steaks. And it has trained 6,000 meat cutters to slice beef that no longer comes in frozen.
The overall investment in the grills, training and marketing -- a cool $75 million.
Applebee's has had a rough go of it lately. Domestic same-store sales have dropped for three straight quarters, and fell 3.7% in the first quarter.
B-Dubs, as it's known to fans, could use some more lunch guests.
3. Buffalo Wild Wings
Unlike its competitors, Buffalo Wild Wings has chosen not to focus on a specific food to reignite sales. Instead, it has turned its attention to fixing an entire part of the day that has long been a problem -- the lunch business, which represents only about 10% of the company's sales.
For years, Buffalo Wild Wings has been viewed as place to stay for hours to drink, eat and watch sports. That has led to the perception one can't get in and out quickly for lunch.
At nearly 900 of the chain's over 1,100 locations in the U.S., Buffalo Wild Wings has introduced a 15-minute lunch guarantee. If 15 minutes have passed and there is still no food on the table, the meal, plus a drink, is on the house.
Despite the latest efforts, Wall Street remains concerned on the near-term prospects on B-Dubs. "Our checks point to a concerning wing pricing gap to peers, we found Buffalo Wild Wings' traditional wing prices to be 20% above peers across 10 markets," said Credit Suisse analyst Jason West in a new note on Wednesday.
"Buffalo Wild Wings has aggressively raised menu prices in recent years and may need to moderate some of this inflation." If the company lowers prices to become more competitive it could hurt profit margins, said West.
The analyst is also concerned about challenges with service quality and employee morale following conversations with former Buffalo Wild Wings employees -- those challenges may require investment on the part of Buffalo Wild Wings to fix, which would come at the expense of margins.
West slashed his second-quarter, 2016 and 2017 earnings estimates on Buffalo Wild Wings. He reiterated an underperform rating on the stock.