Look, it’s all too easy and unhelpful to stick the proverbial boot in when a brand is in decline, so let’s start with a few consumer feedback positives. The Frankie & Benny’s business retains valuable comparative strengths in terms of its family friendliness and cleanliness of its venues, and also, albeit to a lesser extent, with regards the convenience of its locations, its menu choice and engaging customer service. These attributes are certainly not to be under-estimated.

However, of greater significance, are worrying trends in the more important reasons to visit factors of food quality/taste and value for money. These are more fundamental problems, and as a consequence, it is of little surprise that these declines are associated with weakening performances in revisit intention and net promoter scores. Retaining a more constructive approach, these findings do at least highlight a route map of sorts for arresting comparable store sales declines and for potentially helping to solve a problem at the Restaurant Group.

Delving into a bit more detail, MCA’s Eating Out Panel enables us to track and benchmark consumer feedback on their eating out experiences. If we focus on the Frankie & Benny’s brand and compare its performance against the Top 10 casual dining brands in the market, then several rather pertinent findings are apparent. Looking at the key dinner day-part, Frankie & Benny’s share of visits over Q1 2016 has declined to 14% from 16% in Q1 2015. This contrasts with the share gains being enjoyed by Wagamama, Bella Italia and Nando’s.

Looking at how customers have rated their dining out experiences it is immediately clear that consumers are getting more demanding. They have never had so much choice and are better informed and more discerning than ever before. Across the 14 different key performance indicators we look at, on ALL measures consumers’ ratings of their meal experiences have declined year on year across the Top 10 casual dining chains. The clear message is that operators simply just have to raise their games and their standards to remain in favour. Unfortunately in the case of Frankie & Benny’s, the evidence suggests some greater slippage has occurred, and worryingly, in critical areas.

So, consumers are most strongly telling us that Frankie & Benny’s is falling down in terms of the competitiveness of its prices, the food quality and perceived value for money. If you look at the latest Frankie & Benny’s menu, we estimate that typical mains prices have increased by c.5% from last year, some way ahead of the casual segment average of 1%. And if you look at several specific products, there are reasonable grounds for making a case that the business has allowed a number of price points to drift against key competitor benchmarks. For example: the price for a Hand Battered Fish & Chips at Frankie & Benny’s is £11.45, but at Chef & Brewer its £9.99, leaving Frankie & Benny’s with a price premium of 14.6% (Nb. All prices collected from restaurant outlets based in the Midlands in May 2016).

In today’s increasingly competitive marketplace, the right to have higher prices has to be earned and justified. The prime justification is of course, a quality differential. Quality has several dimensions, including freshness, provenance, taste and visual appeal. Now I recognise a sample of two is not the most robust, but I visited my local Frankie & Benny’s with my partner as part of the research for this review. While I was keen to be open-minded, unfortunately, we were both underwhelmed. For starters, bruschetta on soft bread and an unattractive looking caprese salad with scant mozzarella did not bode well. This was followed by a disappointing sirloin steak, despite it being at least 28 days aged, and an ABC salad that was let down by excessive dressing.

I suspect it is a related point, but Frankie & Benny’s menu covers a large number of bases, including burgers, pizza, pasta, salads, steaks, wraps and assorted favourites. Indeed, with close to 100 main menu items, its offering is easily amongst the largest in the casual restaurant space. As part of trying to broaden its customer appeal across the demographic spectrum, it is tempting to conclude it has stretched its product offer too far and the quality focus has suffered as a consequence. The question could also be raised about whether the business can lay claim to having any genuine signature dishes that truly stand out in the marketplace?

Frankie & Benny’s has been a business that has traded well on the back of a locational strategy that in avoiding the High Street and targeting retail and leisure parks, has to an extent, been insulated from rising competitor choice. At the same time, Frankie & Benny’s was able to prosper on the back of external footfall and its neighbouring convenience. However, unlike the classic retail justification for going out of town, it has lacked destination appeal in its own right. Frankie & Benny’s is a parasitic brand that has several problems, and they are fundamental. But, assuming the management team is prepared to take a long hard and dispassionate look at the core food offering, and sharpen its price competitiveness and strengthen its quality credentials – they are solvable. However, this is highly unlikely to be possible without some margin investment in the short term.