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TGI Fridays reimagines the original singles bar for the dating-app age

Daniella Genovese

TGI Fridays likes to describe itself as the original singles bar, with a history dating to 1965, when women's skirts were getting shorter and men's hair was growing longer.

Decades later, what seemed revolutionary to the parents of baby boomers has become old school. Skirts have now partly transcended the gender barrier to become couture for men – at least for male runway models and one of the main characters on television's "Schitt's Creek" -- and mobile apps are digitizing how Americans date, dine and drink.

It's against that backdrop that Fridays, with more than 800 bar-and-grill eateries worldwide, is going public for the second time in its history, with plans to rely on its bar to differentiate itself from competitors. Which told owners it was time for a reboot.

“We are not using the rearview mirror to drive the car,” CEO Ray Blanchette told FOX Business. “Especially in today’s climate, there is a real need for social connections. Our space is conducive to that type of socialization.”

The revamp includes communal tables, Blanchette said, where digital natives can engage in the vanishing art of face-to-face conversation. There will also be charging stations and upgraded WiFi to keep mobile devices prepped as fail-safes.  

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"TGI Fridays started as a bar," Blanchette told analysts in November, when the company announced a $380 million combination with Allegro Merger Corp. that was a  precursor to going public.

"When you ask folks to tell you a story about TGI Fridays, they're always bar stories: 'I hung out with my buddies in college or I met my wife at a TGI Fridays," he added. "In the last five years or so, though, the bar has been deemphasized in TGI Fridays. I think our bar is a major differentiator versus our core competition, and we believe it can be better leveraged.".

His strategy reflects the necessity of staying relevant in a constantly morphing culture, one where online ordering is booming.

That $26.8 billion market is the fastest-growing source of restaurant sales in the United States, according to David Portalatin, a food industry adviser for NPD Group. Digital orders, while still accounting for just 5 percent of all restaurant orders, are growing some 20 percent each year.

Restaurant visits, meanwhile, remain mostly flat.

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Another reason for emphasizing the bar is that alcohol is a high profit-margin item industrywide, making the opportunity even more enticing.

To take full advantage, Fridays created an affordable drink menu crafted by Phil Wills of reality show "Bar Rescue" fame, who coincidentally is a former TGIF bartender. The menu features $3 cocktails, $4 wine, and $2 beers that will be offered all day, every day.

The goal was to make sure Fridays' locations had something for everyone, including recent college grads who want to socialize but may be cash-strapped.

The upgraded sites "embrace everybody," Blanchette told FOX Business.

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The changes were first implemented in Baltimore locations in October before hitting Albany, N.Y., two months later. Restaurants in Washington, D.C., will get their upgrades in February, followed by a national rollout slated for April.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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