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TGI Fridays—one of the first casual dining spots turned mega-chain—was once so hot that swinging New Yorkers waited behind velvet ropes on 63rd Street for a chance to sip neon cocktails and mingle under the red-and-white striped awnings. But a lot has changed since 1965.
Gone is the age when Cocktail-style bottle-flipping bartenders and oversize buttons were cool. These days, the kids are stuffing their faces with locally sourced burritos from Chipotle, leaving TGI Fridays and other casual dining restaurants in a battle of gimmicks to lure hungry bellies back into their lacquered booths.
The eatery that claims to have made happy hour a thing has done promotions in the past—a “Right Size” menu that put less food on the plate for less money, lunch for a fiver that led to a franchise revolt, and a recent guest appreciation program where diners can earn points towards perks like free food.
But no deal has been as bold as their newest: all-you-can-eat appetizers for the summer. Through August 24, diners can choose between standard, mostly fried starters like potato skins and mozzarella sticks and keep the fare coming for as long as they can stomach it—all for just $10. “The good times don’t have to end,” Fridays promised in the press release.
The press wasn’t so kind. Analysts weighed in, calling the campaign a last ditch effort to save a restaurant on life support. Indeed, chains like TGI Fridays have lost about seven million visitors since 2009. But is the gambit really the death knell of an over brand or perhaps just the thing to remind people what they love about America’s original casual bar and grill?
The Daily Beast is on it. I traveled to Forest Hills, Queens (none of the Manhattan restaurants were participating) for Happy Hour to take them up on their offer of never-ending appetizers. And I brought a friend. Someone who would really be able to test the weight of that all-you-can-eat promise: rapper, reality-show star, and Brooklyn’s favorite competitive eater, Eric “Badlands” Booker.
We walked into a restaurant bathed in the kitsch we’ve come to expect—Beetlejuice movie posters, star-studded mirrors, a three-foot astronaut doll—and were greeted promptly by Kevin, the manager. Skipping the half-full bar, we sat down at a table where our waiter, Nayeem, a handsome college student in black nerd glasses, explained how the whole crazy deal worked.
Badlands ordered two (!) eat-til-you-drop options: pan-seared pot stickers and boneless Buffalo wings.
“Nothing for you?” Nayeem asked me.
“I might take a bite of Badlands,’” I said, ordering a beer and waiting for the “No sharing!” reprimand. But Nayeem’s smile echoed the promise made by Fridays’ chief marketing officer, who told USA Today, “Our servers aren’t policemen. We’re not going to slap someone’s hand if they reach over and share someone else’s mozzarella sticks.”
Then the food came.
Was it hot? Yes. Was it fast? You bet. Did they keep it coming? Two at a time once they saw what Badlands was capable of.
Now I wouldn’t call the food “good,” but I can see how someone else might. It’s junk food, and that can be pretty satisfying. The appetizers looked and tasted a little better than you’d expect from fried chicken nuggets covered in hot sauce and pork dumplings—microwaved, then seared, I’m guessing. The diners around us certainly seemed happy.
Badlands ate, slowly at first; this was a casual snack after all, not a contest. But before long he was in the zone, grabbing two pot stickers at a time, wetting them with Szechwan dipping sauce and jerking them back, pelican-style down his gullet. Between bites, the father of three boys spoke about the world of competitive eating, where he trades the trappings of real life—he’s a subway conductor by day—for the travel and superstardom of a famous athlete, ranked 22nd in the world. Once ranked No. 2, the 400-pound gentleman (he blushes at a belch, apologizing to “the ladies”) admits he’s been slipping and should train more, by stretching his stomach with boiled cabbage.
Rank be damned, 45-year-old Badlands still looks hungry to me, and manages to gobble 12 plates in all, with grace. That’s 48 potstickers, 36 Buffalo wings and eight potato skins, which we only ordered after our “Simpsons” moment when a sheepish waiter came to tell us that Badlands had eaten every pot sticker in the restaurant.
Badlands ate 9,390 calories in all and totally crushed the Queens store’s current record, which our waiter said was just three rounds. Most people, he said, are done by the second.
“They can’t really go for much more than that,” Nayeem said.
According to the Fridays host and the waiters I spoke to, the promotion has been a success. “It’s been pretty busy, since all the ads started,” Nayeem said. “Sales have been up. This past week was insane.”
It’s easy to hate on TGI Fridays—the concept, the décor, the food even, is a little stale. But on this summer afternoon, a friend and I had a few drinks, more food than anyone should probably eat, and a really nice time. Badlands said he’d come again. And though I don’t go to chain restaurants often, if I’m faced with the choice of one in the future, I’ll probably choose Fridays, which is what the whole promotion is about, right?