Fast casual restaurants have been gaining popularity since the mid 1990s, with places like Chipotle and McAlister’s Deli, and according to NPD Group, they lead the restaurant industry in growing traffic and unit count.
Fast casual restaurants don’t offer full table service, but they do promise higher quality food and atmosphere than quick service restaurants. Technomic Information Services defines fast casual restaurants with the following criteria:
- Limited-service or self-service format
- Average meal price between $7 and $11
- Made-to-order food with more complex flavors than fast food restaurants
- Upscale, unique or highly developed décor
- Most often will not have a drive thru
In the last year, “visits to fast casual restaurants increased by 9%” while the rest of the industry traffic remained flat. Fast casual experiences have expanded beyond Mexican food and bakery setups to include build-your-own-burger and ethnic categories. One of the biggest increases, 2.5% in the last 3 years, has been by fast casual salad bar restaurants.
Fast casual restaurants are here to stay, and there are opportunities with this trend that many restaurateurs may want to consider, but first there are a couple considerations:
- What type of experience will your guests look for based on the food you serve or their experience with your brand in the past?
- What are others in your competitive set doing and will/can adding fast casual elements be differentiating?
Without starting from scratch, restaurants can implement elements of fast casual concepts into their current businesses. Many fast food chains have taken notice in the area of fresher and healthier ingredients in menu planning, leading to “Market Fresh” headings on menus. Another option is to upgrade the presentation of food, whether that is providing higher value to-go containers or bringing food out to a table for dine-in customers.
No situation is the same and you may be surprised to see what you can learn from restaurants that may not be “direct” industry competitors.