TGI Fridays launches cheap apps—the kind you eat

By Tod MarksConsumer Reports

Remember Chili’s bottomless soup bowl and Olive Garden’s never-ending pasta bowl? TGI Fridays, the pub-style chain with more than 900 restaurants worldwide, recently announced an “Endless Appetizer” promotion that’s either brilliant or bone-headed, depending on your point of view.

Now through Aug. 24, customers can choose from among the chain’s most popular appetizers and for $10 get unlimited refills of that particular item. The starters include the skins and sticks, and favorites such as garlic and basil bruschetta, buffalo wings, spinach dip, crispy green bean fries, pan-seared pot stickers, and others.

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Dietary considerations aside, there’s a lot to like about all-you-can-eat specials if you’re a consumer. But does it make smart business sense to court ravenous, value-conscious diners who could eat you out of house and home? Will it cut into entrée sales? And what if too many frugal patrons devour plate after plate of Fridays' famous loaded potato skins, but order nothing more than a Diet Coke?

According to Fridays, the strategy poses little risk. Because the chain is so well known for its appetizers, the promotion has the potential to encourage existing customers to visit more frequently, reach out to new guests, and entice lapsed ones by reminding them what they are missing, said Brian Gies, Fridays' senior vice president and chief marketing officer.

The chain is confident that the buffet approach won’t cannibalize from the rest of the menu. Before being rolled out nationwide, Fridays’ tested the promo and found that guests who ordered an Endless Appetizer also tended to order what they normally would, including entrees and beverages, Gies said.  Ultimately, sales increased across the board, he said.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm, said that while the chain might take a beating on individual customers who drink water and binge on the special, it’s more likely that most guests drawn in by the promotion will purchase highly profitable adult beverages and order an entrée or dessert to compliment the special.

“Overall, I can't imagine too many customers wanting more than two orders of an appetizer, and I suspect that there is some margin to be made on selling those two plates for $10," he said. “This seems like a strong promotional effort to get more customers in the doors and that will be good for business.”

The biggest challenge, Tristano said, will be for the waitstaff to police tables to keep an eye out for sneaky guests who don’t actually order the appetizer, but instead nibble from the plate of friends and family who do.

Tod Marks

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