Ihop Express Goes Self-service At New San Diego Location

Saturday, November 19, 2011

IHOP, the chain known for coffee-pouring waitresses and high stacks of pancakes, on Thursday will open an IHOP Express in a tourist-heavy San Diego location where you buy your meal at the counter and pour your own refills, and the waitresses are replaced by runners.

The location its first express unit that's not on a college campus or military base will have free Wi-Fi, offer a menu with some quicker and healthier foods and, in most cases, have you out the door in about half the time of a conventional IHOP.

STORY: Chipotle founder tries new Asian format with ShopHouse This is not your grandfather's world of family dining. The move comes at a time the struggling family dining industry, whose $34 billion in sales have been basically flat since 2005, is looking to catch up with the 21st century. Rival Denny's is also testing express formats, but has so far limited them to college campuses.

The question is: What good will any of these do? "The whole family dining sector is caught in the middle and not doing very well," says Ron Paul, president of the research firm Technomic. Many consumers, instead, are gravitating to fast-casual restaurants such as Panera Bread and Chipotle, he says, which typically serve food more quickly and where consumers aren't expected to leave tips. This, he says, is family dining's attempt to mimic fast-casual.

On top of that, Paul says, family dining locations are typically very big on breakfast, but many Millennials (who are key targets) simply don't do breakfast at least, not at conventional breakfast hours.

"We know some people don't come to IHOP because they don't have the time," says the chain's president, Jean Birch. "This (new format) gives them an option." And, she says, she plans to open more. "This is part of the future, but it's not the only future," Birch says. "This is not a replacement for IHOPs." Unlike conventional IHOPs, this one is focused on convenience, she says. Beyond a limited number of conventional pancakes off the griddle, IHOP Express sells lots of snacking items like Dough Bites, bite-sized dough that's coated with yummies like s'mores or peanut butter and jelly. Some pancakes are even sold in cups, so they're easier to cart around.

Denny's has tried a similar format, opening 11 express units on college campuses over the past 20 months. Some are called Denny's Fresh Express. Others are called Denny's All Nighter. The menus also feature portable items. The chain plans to expand the express format to airports, and eventually busy urban areas says Greg Powell, VP of concept innovation.

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