By Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY
For all the forgettable Veterans Day sales, there's a trio of free-meal deals for military veterans that speak not just to the heart but the stomach.
Three major casual-dining chains -Applebee's, McCormick & Schmick's and Golden Corral- are offering free food to veterans and, in most cases, active-duty military personnel in observance of Veterans Day (The official holiday is Wednesday).
Beyond simply showing appreciation for the vets' service, the actions are about boosting brand image and business in one of the casual-dining industry's worst-ever periods. About 65% of restaurant operators reported a same-store sales decline in September compared with the same period in 2008, says the National Restaurant Association, an industry trade group.
"This not only creates goodwill," says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president at consultant WD Partners, "but if I'm a restaurant owner right now, I'd much rather have four people eating at a table - and I pay for one of them - than have an empty table."
Everyone in casual dining is trying to drive business, so outreach to the military is a smart move, says restaurant consultant Howard Gordon. "This will get a lot of people who would normally stay home to eat out."
Others are in the mix with promotions. Outback Steakhouse offers a free Bloomin' Onion appetizer and beverage to past and present military members on Wednesday, and Krispy Kreme has free doughnuts. Home Depot and Lowe's are offering 10% discounts to military and vets.
These free meals are the hottest tickets:
-Applebee's. Applebee's is offering a free entree on Wednesday to veterans and all active-duty military from 11 a.m. to midnight at all 1,900 locations. Although Applebee's requests some kind of military ID, "We're not going to argue with folks who might forget to bring it," says Sam Rothschild, senior vice president of operations.
-McCormick & Schmick's. For the 11th year in a row, the 87 locations in 25 states are offering free entrees to veterans on Sunday. The chain also requests military ID and highly recommends reservations. The promotion is on Sunday instead of Veterans Day, "because it allows vets to bring their families who might not be available during the week," CEO Bill Freeman says.
-Golden Corral. The 485-unit chain is offering free buffet meals - including beverage and dessert - to current military and vets on Monday, Nov. 16, from 5 to 9 p.m. No military ID is required for its ninth annual Military Appreciation Monday, says Dolly Mercer, national events manager. The event is held on this date, she says, "so we don't interfere with Veterans Day activities."