Fast-Casual Part 2: Concept Definition

Defining a fast-casual concept isn't as easy as it once was. 

Continuing on the topic of fast-casual restaurants, let's do some reconnaissance on what happening in the marketplace to see if we can find the true parameters that define a fast-casual concept. Of course, after completing this exercise it felt like I was playing a game of Where's Waldo.

  • Menu Offering and Pricing: Fast-casual concepts are known for offering more up-scale, healthier and sometimes more expensive menu items. Muddying the waters, though, is the fact that many QSRs now offer premium and better-for-you products with a premium priced attached.
  • Production Systems: Made-to-order production systems, with open kitchens and direct contact with the production team members, was a traditional trait of fast-casual concepts. Nowadays assembly to order is a typical practice of many QSR concepts. For example, take a peek at a Burger King kitchen. While the components are pre-made and ready to go, most of the time the sandwiches are made after you order them. Many concepts, like Wendy's, have been following this practice since their inception. Even cooking to order set-ups, like Five Guys, may not be a traditional trait of the fast-casual category since several concepts, like Whataburger and Culver's, have done this since they opened their doors.
  • Inside Service System: Single lines, where you pre order and pick-up, or pick along the way and pay at the end, are now typical in both fast-casual and QSR concepts.
  • Drive-Through Service: In the past, drive-through service was exclusively the domain of QSRs. Today, however, many fast-casual concepts, like McAlister's Deli, have started playing in this service arena. Many fast-casual concepts have recognized that there is a segment of customers that want higher quality products, but prefer to convenience of drive through service.
  • Service Time: When fast-casual concepts first sprung up, they were based on a slower service model than QSR. The time-starved needs of the customers are driving most fast-casual concepts to investigate ways to deliver faster service to drive more business.
  • Ambiance/Retail Design: Up-scale and comfortable interiors were trademarks of fast-casual concepts before. Walk into a recently remodeled McDonald's and tell me what you think of the décor. Is this fast-casual?
  • Employees: While a typical fast-casual employee may have a higher level of customer hospitality skills, QSR concepts are quickly catching up. Go ahead and visit a Chick-fil-A and tell me if there is a difference in the hospitality you feel from the cashier.

The fast-casual category was born to fill a need the customers had for better quality food with reasonably fast service, slightly higher pricing, delivered in a more comfortable environment. To deliver this, the fast-casual concepts would end up investing more capital in the cost of the facility and usually have higher operating costs.

This category has improved in many areas to drive a higher level of profitability, look at ways to reduce capital and operating cost, and deliver better customer service, while maintaining many of the factors that drove its success. In the meantime, many QSR concepts have learned from the successes of fast-casual and evolved their concepts as well, picking up the traits of fast-casual that can likewise improve their customer's experience.

The next time you visit a fast-casual or QSR concept see if you can spot the differences between the two categories. Identifying the differences between the two is often not easy. When trying to improve the performance of a fast-casual concept, I feel it is important to understand what the concept is trying to be and the overall hospitality experience they want to deliver. This is critical for consultants, suppliers, designers and brand owners alike. It can impact our success when dealing in the fast-casual arena.

In my next blog post, I will aim to provide some insights on how we can help brands deliver improvements in these areas with our design, equipment and industrial engineering expertise, to better serve the evolving needs of the fast-casual category.

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