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Will a new menu aimed at younger diners help Carrabba's Italian Grill bounce back?

Jay Smith, head chef Carrabba's Italian Grill cooks at the Carrabba's test kitchen in Tampa. The restaurant chain is coming out with a new small plate concept it hopes will lure younger diners. EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times

Jay Smith, head chef Carrabba's Italian Grill cooks at the Carrabba's test kitchen in Tampa. The restaurant chain is coming out with a new small plate concept it hopes will lure younger diners. EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Published Mar. 10, 2016

Executives from Carrabba's Italian Grill invited a handful of food writers from around the country to taste test a new menu at a restaurant in Clearwater Tuesday evening.

While sampling a variety of appetizers, entrees and desserts from the recently revamped menu, these executives told the writers that they plan to use this new menu — which has a slew of small sharing plates, lighter fare entrees and overall fewer options — as a way to get younger people back into their restaurants.

Surrounding their table in the busy dining room that evening was evidence of their challenge: It was a sea of white hair, nearly all older people eating dinner.

Carrabba's is trying to avoid the same disappointing path as its sister brand, Bonefish Grill, which announced it will close 14 restaurants this year following three quarters of declining sales in 2015.

However, Carrabba's seems to be taking a page straight from the Bonefish play book — it was just a year ago that Bonefish tried to turn itself around by launching a new menu, too. Carrabba's is tinkering in different ways, but expectations are mixed as to whether Carrabba's can avoid Bonefish's struggles.

RELATED: Bonefish Grill to close 14 restaurants and restructure

The day after the Clearwater dinner, the same group of writers was invited to a test kitchen at Bloomin' Brands headquarters near International Plaza. Tampa-based Bloomin' Brands is the parent company of Carrabba's and Bonefish, and other chain restaurants like Outback Steakhouse and Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar.

There, Carrabba's Head Chef Jay Smith and his team whipped up small plate after small plate, which included meatballs with ricotta ($4.79), stuffed mushrooms ($5.79) and asparagus with prosciutto ($4.29). The group also tried new less traditional Italian plates like chicken wings ($7.79) and lettuce wraps ($5.79).

"Customers still wanted the classics, but were looking for new ways to eat out," said Katie Knight, chief marketing officer for Carrabba's. "Our core customer tends to be older and more middle to higher income class. We want to appeal to a younger customer, too, where they can stop in for a quick, casual bite to eat and not only visit Carrabba's for a date night."

Carrabba's hopes to find its groove with a younger consumer, but like many chain restaurants, it has struggled to remain relevant to the sweeping tastes of a variety of age demographics without having too broad of an offering. Not to mention Carrabba's is coming off a shaky year. The company reported declining same-store sales down 4 percent in the fourth quarter and down 2 percent in the third. Mike Kappitt was named president of Carrabba's the day before Bloomin' Brands released its fourth quarter results. He is leading operations and development of the Carrabba's brand in the United States.

"It's the billion dollar question — how do you capture millennial dollars if you're a chain restaurant?" said Brian Connors, a restaurant consultant with Connors Davis Hospitality, a global food and beverage consulting firm in Fort Lauderdale. "You can't be everything to everyone in this day and age. That's the problem most chains don't seem to get."

In 2015, Bonefish introduced a new menu, one that was meant to "strip the complexity" from previous versions and get the seafood restaurant back on track. Among its new additions were a slew of small plates. The chain also changed some of it decor and lightened up what had been a traditionally dark and moody dining room.

But sales still dropped.

Some analysts said it was too late. Sales were down at Bonefish Grill by 5.4 percent for the months of October through December as compared to the same period in 2014. Sales were down 6.1 percent in the third quarter and down 4.6 percent in the second.

Bloomin' Brands CEO Liz Smith said she was hopeful that 2016 would be a year of strength for Bonefish Grill, which was intended to be the leading brand for new growth in Bloomin' Brands' restaurant portfolio.

"Bonefish's small plates menu was a bit less centralized to seafood by offering things like mac and cheese bites and lamb lollipop chops," said Lizzy Freier, managing editor of menu analysis at Technomic, a Chicago-based food research firm. "So Carrabba's is following suit with their small plates menu. However, Carrabba's is staying more true to Italian food."

But how do you get younger consumers to come to a chain restaurant when there are so many local, independent restaurants out there vying for their dollars?

"The first step is to add something to the menu that they'll like. The next will be to come down on price," Connors said. "But it begs the question, are they a day late and a dollar short?"

In addition, the new menu focuses on lighter Italian entrees, like the Chianti chicken dish ($15.29), a wood-grilled chicken breast served with a salad tossed with apples, grapes and hazelnuts. It was billed as an attempt to make hearty Italian meals seem more healthy. Many of the more traditional entrees remain, like lasagna ($15.49), chicken parmesan ($18.29) and chicken Bryan ($18.29), which executives call the "menu favorites." All entrees still come with a soup or salad and a side.

Carrabba's tested menu changes at restaurants in the Tampa Bay market, adding new items and removing some of the old until they found the right blend, Knight said. The new menu was in development for nearly a year before it debuted in January. The restaurant chain kicked off a promotion where it gave away one million dishes to guests who signed up online. In addition to the new menu, Carrabba's website got a face lift. A new wine and cocktail menu is expected to be the next wave of innovation for Carrabba's, another important trend that is aimed at getting the attention of millennials. Similar to Bonefish, dining room lighting and some minor dining room decor changed, too.

The last time the restaurant chain made major changes to the menu was in March 2014.

So the big question is, will this new menu save Carrabba's? Most seem doubtful.

"Carrabba's didn't fall off the cliff. They've just got some stiff competition," said Malcom Knapp, a restaurant economist in New York City and the founder of Knapp-Track, an industry tool used to track restaurant sales, who listed Olive Garden and Maggiano's as Carrabba's top competitors. "Because of the slow growth of the economy, it takes a lot longer than it used to to bounce back. Everyone is very impatient. But we have to wait and see what they're capable of doing."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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