The new face of Chili’s: What’s changed since 1975

Around 11 a.m. every Sunday, Larry Waller heads to the Preston Hollow Chili’s with his wife and grandchildren.

“It’s just what we always do,” Waller said.

For Waller and millions of other guests each year, that’s the only explanation needed. Chili’s has, in many ways, become a staple of casual dining. It’s routine, consistent and predictable.

But Chili’s and parent company Brinker International, Inc. are changing a lot of things up this year. The company added menu items, renovated the kitchens and plans to install tablets on every table by the end of the year.

Chili’s has changed significantly from opening its doors on Greenville Ave. in 1975 to operating over 1,500 stores today.

Larry Lavine founded Chili’s with three basic menu items: hamburgers, French fries, and margaritas. Today, there are hundreds of menu items, ranging from flatbreads to Mexican food.

Lavine says Chili’s today is nothing like it was when he owned the restaurant through the early 1980s.

“What it started out as originally and what it is today are two completely different things,” Lavine said.

“They are not telling you that they’re going to serve you the greatest food in the world. They’re telling you we’re going to serve you in a clean place and with good service, and the quality will be OK.”

Chili’s is changing to produce food more efficiently and in what Lavine calls a “hip coffee shop” atmosphere in order to compete with the onslaught of fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle and Applebee’s.

Chili’s attempts to distinguish itself from these other fast-casual options with attention to good service.

The restaurant does this with what it calls the “Power of the Welcome,” a pledge to make “a human connection” with every guest, according to the Brinker website.

Antonio Barnes has worked at Chili’s for 12 years as a bartender, server and corporate trainer. Barnes, a certified teacher, chooses to work at Chili’s because of that environment and the corporate culture.

“I can teach school, but I refuse to because I have more fun here, and I make more money too,” said Barnes.

Chili’s is hoping that the addition of the Ziosk tablets will enhance this service-oriented atmosphere. Guests can order drinks and desserts, as well as pay their checks on the in-table devices.

“With the growing use of technology in our daily lives, it just made sense to add this touch point into the restaurants to enhance the casual dining experience,” said Julie Flowers, a social media specialist with Chili’s Brand Strategy.

Lavine, who is no longer affiliated with Chili’s, predicts a few problems with the new technology. One is that the addition, which allows you to play games, will bring in too many children.

“There is a number that you’d like to have in the restaurant,” Lavine said. “If you were going on a date on Friday night, you wouldn’t want to go to a place just loaded with kids.”

So far, Brinker, which also owns Maggiano’s Little Italy, has remained stable this quarter.

In the fourth quarter, Brinker made revenue of $20.9 million, up 14.8 percent or $2.7 million from $18.2 million this quarter last year.

The company claims that recent kitchen innovations reduced costs because they allow for faster preparation.

The reduction in costs has not been especiallynoticeable in the most recent quarter. The cost of goods sold came in at $580.7 million, down by 0.82 percent from this quarter last year’s $585.6 million.

Still, the company is running more efficiently now than it did five years ago. While revenue is down, net income this year is more than double what it was five years ago.

Revenue in 2013 was $2.8 billion, down from $3.2 billion in 2009. That is a decrease of $400 million or 12.5 percent.

However, net income increased by 106 percent or $84 million from 2009 to 2013, coming in at $163 million in 2013 and $79 million in 2009.

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