(USATODAY.com) - Father's Day means many things. Pathetic ties. Neon-green sweaters that sag in all the wrong spots. And, increasingly, for brands looking for a larger share of stomachs: free eats for Dad.
Some familiar restaurant brands, including Shoney's, TCBY, Spaghetti Warehouse, Buca di Beppo and Hooters, will be doling out free food around Father's Day, hoping that no-cost or low-cost meals in a tough economy will lure guests who might not otherwise walk in the door. Unlike some other annual celebrations, notably, Veteran's Day and Mother's Day, when free food offerings have become annual rituals, Father's Day is just beginning to emerge as an excuse by food purveyors to induce frugal consumers to spend the holiday with them.
The problem: Father's Day isn't traditionally a big day for the restaurant industry, when many dads would rather be flipping burgers on the grill. "Mother's Day is often positioned as a splurge day, but, for some reason, children are not expected to treat their fathers on Father's Day," says marketing consultant Tracey Riese.
Marketers are baiting the hook with free food. "Any traffic on a non-restaurant day - in their minds - is a good marketing strategy," says Warren Sackler, assistant professor of hospitality management at Rochester Institute of Technology.
Retailers generally begin the offerings this weekend - most on Father's Day itself, but some are extending it to a day before or after. Here are some freebies up for grabs this Father's Day (check brand sites for specific details, some of which require downloaded coupons):
• Spaghetti. For the third year in row, Spaghetti Warehouse offers free spaghetti or lasagna entrees (with soup and salad) to dads who bring in downloaded coupons from the chain's website on Father's Day. Last year, the 16-unit chain handed out 6,000 free entrees, says marketing director Kathy Wan.
• Fudge cake. Shoney's is giving dads its best-selling dessert, Hot Fudge Cake, with entrée purchases. "This day is about dads, not us," says CEO David Davoudpour. "We'd either sell thousands of give away thousands. We decided to do the right thing for dads on their special day."
• Yogurt cup. Dads get free, six-ounce cups -- and at some stores, cones -- of TCBY frozen yogurt. Many associate frozen yogurt more with female customers, so TCBY is reaching out to dads on Father's Day, says Dustin Finkel, senior director at Famous Brands, which owns TCBY.
• Chicken wings. Dads who purchase 10 chicken wings at Hooters on Father's Day will get 10 free. Last year, some 20,000 dads came in for the Father's Day deal, says Dave Henninger, marketing chief. "It gives infrequent guests a reason to come back and join us," he says.
• Cannoli. For dads who savor cannoli -- the pastry dessert filled with sweet cream --Buca di Beppo, the Italian restaurant chain, will be handing them out, free, to dads with special, downloaded coupons. The promo's name: Holy Free Cannoli.