A 1991 promo for Sizzler, the casual sit-down restaurant of yesteryear, recently surfaced on Reddit. And it's hilarious, as commenters on the thread have duly noted. "Human smiles are not meant to be this wide," one user wrote. "Can we option this for a full 22 minute series?" another quipped. The nearly five-minute clip is an amalgam of cheesy music, dated fashion trends, and strange up-close shots of overly pleased customers.
But while the spot offers plenty to laugh about, the promo also says a good deal about how America's relationship with food has changed.
At the time of the ad in the early 1990s, Sizzler was already on the decline and other chains like Outback steakhouse, Chili's, and Fuddruckers were on the ascent. "Sizzler had kind of come and gone, and was trying to rebound, regain relevance," said Mary Chapman, a senior director at Technomic, an industry research firm.
Many of the trends that have given rise to the likes of Chipotle were afoot but still in their nascent stages. Families, for instance, were increasingly starved for time, largely because households in which both mothers and fathers worked were becoming more common. People were also becoming more finicky about the foods they ate, a trend that has only accelerated since. And everyone wanted healthier food.
Sizzler's answer was to emphasize choice. In fact, the word is uttered some twelve times in the above promo, while the word "freedom" is used another six times.
"I think that they were trying to find a niche," said Chapman. "They probably thought they could take advantage by offering all of the things competitors were, but in a buffet."
Indeed, instead of touting higher quality or speed of service, Sizzler invested in buffet spreads. Chapman suggests the strategy could have been a response to what consumers wanted at the time: something for everyone. Sizzler wasn't the only chain betting on buffets_Ponderosa, the Indiana-based chain, along with several other eateries, did the same.
In any case, the thinking appears to have been dead wrong. Not only did Sizzler file for bankruptcy in 1996, but the number of outlets has shrunk by more than 80 percent since its peak in the 1980s to 129 restaurants, according to data from Technomic. Most of those are on the west coast, mainly in California. The east coast houses exactly two Sizzlers today_one in New York, and one in Florida.
Puerto Rico, somehow, is home to 13 locations, or roughly 10 percent of Sizzler's remaining restaurants.
"The full buffet thing has really struggled," said Chapman. "It's not really what consumers were demanding."
What people actually wanted, beyond quality, convenience, and value, it seems, was the opportunity to customize their meal to their liking, not necessarily fish through endless options. Fuddruckers, which sky-rocketed in the '90s, first proved this to be true. The chain popularized the concept of serving a small number of highly customize-able foods (in this case, predominantly burgers), a model that has been taken to new heights elsewhere. Chipotle, which has grown immensely over the past two decades, implements a similar strategy: a short menu, but near-endless customization.
Twenty five years ago, a "quiet revolution" was indeed taking place, as the Sizzler ad notes_only it wasn't the sort of cultural transformation the company appears to have envisioned.