PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- Casual dining, like Jennifer Aniston, was once a fresh-faced, flair-wearing American ideal. Now they're both older versions of themselves who can't seem to shake their former identities.Around the time Aniston was playing Ron Livingston's server dream girl in the 1999 movie Office Space, Aniston was still playing Rachel Green on NBC's Friends, dating Brad Pitt and preparing to marry him a year later and was still on the sunny, The Good Girl/ Friends With Money side of a budding film career. Meanwhile, the strip-mall restaurants that Aniston's Office Space character lampooned by wearing 37 pieces of flair as a waitress for "Chotchkie's" were still offering standard, reheated American fare at reasonable prices and were still a homogenous, stuff-on-the-walls bar and grill experience that held a special place in the heart of Anytown USA.
So what happened? How did Aniston turn all of that promise into an unrelenting series of romantic comedies featuring the likes of Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart and Adam Sandler? How did can't-fail casual dining, according to market research firm NPD Group, start losing customers for nearly four years straight. Because the American consumer's association with certain events or points in time traps both people and companies in the amber of memory and holds them there regardless of how many years have elapsed or how much change they've undergone. In Aniston's case, the steady syndication of Friends and refusal to do much television since kept her alter ego Rachel Green far more visible than Aniston was. Sure, the American public dwelt on her breakup with Pitt and his ensuing relationship with Angelina Jolie, but every Thanksgiving they're reminded that Pitt and Aniston were once so romantically, comedically in love that they set it to a laugh track. Those Friends reruns and memories of Aniston and Pitt as U.S. royalty are the warm security blanket that keeps tucking in a certain segment of the population each night.
Meanwhile, as long as casual dining restaurants kept the prices low, the spirits high and the drinks flowing, America could always return to the places it spent its high school weekends, its Thanksgiving weekend homecomings and its airport layovers.
As Applebee's and IHOP owner DineEquity ( DINE) and Outback Steakhouse and Carraba's Italian owner Bloomin' Brands ( BLMN) face similar struggles, casual dining's problems run much deeper than the local high school lettermen jackets on the walls and the uniforms the staff is wearing. For one thing, Millennials don't see casual dining restaurants, or restaurants in general, as being nearly as important to their social experience as baby boomers did. According to NPD, Millennials cut back on restaurant visits since 2008 while boomers only increased their intake of Bloomin' Onions and unlimited breadsticks.
This all brings us back to Aniston. Though not immune to similar pressures, Aniston still has enough star power to turn critically derided films such as 2009's She's Not That Into You and 2010's The Switch into box office successes. At age 44, she's still also drawing enough attention to be featured semi-nude on the cover of GQ and in various states of sweaty undress in ads for SmartWater. Aware of the public's perceptions and demands of her, she's crafted an image that not only reminds fans of Rachel Green, but capitalizes on it by updating the character and keeping her semi-relevant. When Aniston and Office Space are getting more mileage out of the casual dining's glory days than Red Lobster or Chili's are, something is terribly wrong with the industry. While they don't run Chili's "baby back ribs" commercials or Red Lobster Lobster Fest ads in repeats on TBS or Nick@Nite, it may be worth their parent companies' while to go back, check out some reruns and remind themselves what made their restaurants so palatable to Americans in the first place. -- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: email@example.com.