Fast-Casual Part 3: Considerations in Engineering and Design

Martinez's latest post on fast-casual concepts provides a closer look at the attributes they try to leverage as a point of differentiation from their competition.

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So now that you can understand how to work with a fast-casual concept and can better define their characteristics, let's get to work on how the various members of the foodservice industry can help these concepts thrive.

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Considering what the various fast-casual concepts are trying to achieve will make what you can do to help them succeed clear. And it is important to take into consideration operating and investment parameters and how they impact an operation.

Here's a closer look at the attributes fast-casual concepts try to leverage as a point of differentiation from their competition.

Customer Service

As you begin to work with a fast-casual concept, understand the type of customer service and speed it aspires to deliver and the levers driving that goal. As fast-casual concepts begin to explore drive-through service, this goal will become even more important, since delays in the drive-through are more impactful due to the type of service system (single line). Industrial engineering principles, such as line management, time studies and work sampling are a few methods that can help optimize service.

Product Quality

Although one can debate whether quality is not as big a cornerstone to the fast-casual category as it was before, compared to QSR, it still is a significant lever. If you want proof, look no further than the recent success of the so-called "better burger" category, where they still cooks burgers using a flattop grill and the fries in a fry vat — all very similar to the way QSRs prepare these menu items.

How can the application of industrial engineering principles, design and equipment impact these two areas of the fast-casual experience? When appropriately done, these can drive significant impact. Is it faster equipment that can maintain the product quality, or cooking methods, including cook and hold technology, that can deliver the same results? There are many options available to concepts and designers.

Capital & Operating Cost

I like to follow one simple rule: the more compact the facility the less it is likely to cost and the more efficiently it will run. This efficiency extends to labor and utility costs as well as other operating costs.

Speaking of labor, it is an area where efficiency can have a significant impact on the bottom line. For this to happen, it is critical to develop management systems that enable fast-casual restaurants to deploy labor optimally by taking into consideration the labor required to undertake different tasks. Simply managing labor hours as a financial metric won't achieve efficiency goals. The right labor in the right place at the right time, which is the result of an optimum work content and activity-based system, will provide the concept the tool to deliver the maximum sales at the minimum (labor) cost.

Customer Experience

At the end of the day, customers don't walk out of fast-casual restaurants speaking about the efficient experience they had. Customers evaluate their visit based on the overall experience. Trust me when I say that if the experience was not efficient, they will feel it and this will undoubtedly impact whether they visit a concept in the future. While the décor and overall ambiance are the aspect of the concept that consumers experience most directly, all the behind the scenes components of the operation, such as labor, equipment, back-of-house design, etc., have a profound impact on their experience and for that reason must be designed optimally.

Concept Design

A challenge for a designer in the fast-casual arena is the integration of the front of house and back of house in a way that provides for the transparency typical of a fast-casual concept, without impacting the operational efficiency needed to deliver on all the areas presented above. The FOH and BOH integration is critical since, for many, part of the back of the house is in the front. Or is it that part of the front is in the back? You decide.

Whatever is done, developing efficient work stations that have the optimum adjacencies in the layout between them is extremely important.

Return-on-Investment (ROI)

At the end of the day, all the areas mentioned above are facilitators that help fast-casual concepts deliver a higher return-on-investment. The higher the ROI, the more demand there will be for the concept and the faster the brand will grow — the ultimate goal of a thriving concept. More on this topic can be found here.

One word of caution when working with fast-casual concepts: remember that they have morphed quite a bit in the last decade, and this will likely continue. So as you figure out ways to help them get better today, remember that you are likely dealing with a moving target. But then again, perhaps this is the case for all restaurant and foodservice concepts. Would you not agree?

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