NEW YORK – The average time customers waited for a table at casual dining chains fell 13 percent from a year ago, a monthly survey showed, with Darden's struggling Red Lobster (search) unit posting the biggest decline.
The average wait time at 200 casual dining restaurants on the evening of July 23 was 18.1 minutes, down from 20.8 minutes last year, according to Smith Barney (search) analyst Mark Kalinowski, who conducts the poll. The survey was released Wednesday morning.
Longer wait times are considered good for the restaurant industry since they indicate stronger demand.
The average wait time fell 72 percent to 9 minutes at seafood chain Red Lobster, a unit of Darden Restaurants Inc. (DRI).
"This provides additional anecdotal evidence that operational and marketing challenges hampering Red Lobster may be continuing to cause meaningful same-store traffic erosion," Kalinowski wrote.
Red Lobster has been working to fine-tune its marketing message as well as its menu offerings to lure back customers for much of the last year. The chain's same-store sales, or sales at restaurants open at least 16 months, have fallen in 8 of the last 10 months.
The average wait time at Outback Steakhouse Inc.'s (OSI) namesake restaurants fell 17 percent to 19.3 minutes. Kalinowski said the doubling of the average wait time at Outback rival LongHorn Steakhouse, a unit of Rare Hospitality International Inc. (RARE), "may explain part of the recent sales sluggishness" at Outback.
Other decliners included P.F. Chang's China Bistro Inc. (PFCB), where the average wait time fell 18 percent to 46 minutes. Kalinowski said the chain's recent adoption of a reservation system had contributed to the decrease and that it was "not indicative of any reason to be concerned about near-term sales trends."
The average wait time also tumbled at Applebee's International Inc. (APPB), where it fell 57 percent to 9.6 minutes, Darden's Olive Garden chain, which fell 15 percent to 25.6 minutes, and California Pizza Kitchen Inc. (CPKI), which was down 67 percent at 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, average wait times rose 41 percent to 29 minutes at Outback unit Carrabba's, and increased 87 percent to 26.2 minutes at Brinker International Inc. (EAT) chain Macaroni Grill. The average wait time at Brinker's flagship Chili's chain also rose, posting a gain of 24 percent to 12.2 minutes.