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What is a Fast Casual Restaurant?

Fast casual restaurants occupy a bit of a gray area in the realm of food service concepts. It may be easiest to understand fast casual restaurants in terms of how the service, atmosphere and price point compares to quick-serve and casual dining restaurant varieties. The editor of FastCasual Magazine suggests that it all has to do with four key points:[Source]

  • Service type
  • Food quality
  • Atmosphere and décor
  • Menu prices 
For instance, a fast casual restaurant may still take orders at a counter, but offer table-side food delivery or pick-up. The food is made to order, not pre-assembled. The restaurant is comfortable and well-decorated, and the prices are more affordable than a typical casual dining restaurant. Some well-known examples of fast casual restaurants include Chipotle Mexican Grill, Noodles & Company and Panera Bread.

What Makes Fast Casual Successful?
Fast casual concepts fill a gap between the inexpensive fast food joints and full service sit-down restaurants. The fast casual concept occupies only 6% of the market, but according to a recent Technomic study, this niche has been the fastest growing restaurant sector since 2006.[Source]

Fast casual restaurants provide options that retain the concept of fast food but promote the comfort and atmosphere of casual dining and quality items that consumers crave. 

Facts about Fast Casual Restaurants
Below are a few key facts about fast casual restaurants that support their ongoing success.

Fast casual restaurants are reporting increased sales. Almost two thirds of fast casual restaurants across the country reported net increases in same-store sales last year, according to a survey by the National Restaurant Association (NRA). This burgeoning niche within the restaurant industry is positioned to grow even more, as over half of the polled fast-casual operators expect to have continued sales increases.[Source]  

Fast casual restaurants serve better quality food. One key component to the escalation of the fast casual concept is improved food quality. Fast casual concepts are typically more committed to wholesome ingredients, professional preparation and aesthetic presentation. For instance, the NRA suggests that whole grain menu items are six times more common in fast-casual restaurants than their fast-food counterparts.[Source] What’s more, research shows that consumers prefer restaurants like Chipotle and Five Guys Burgers and Fries for high quality food items made to order, instead of fast food equivalents like Taco Bell and Burger King.[Source] When consumers feel better about what they eat, they become loyal to a brand or concept. Food quality is a huge part of what makes fast-casual restaurants successful.

Misconceptions about Fast Casual Restaurants
Not everything we hear about fast casual restaurants is true, and even though things change quickly in the industry, there are a couple of misconceptions worth noting.

Fast casual restaurants are the same as fast food restaurants. The casual dining feel and the sit-down restaurant atmosphere make a noticeable distinction when it comes to the differences in fast casual and fast food. But it takes more than a comfortable chair and some wall art. The menu and food items must offer high-quality options at an affordable price point. Whereas fast food concepts are literally designed to get customers their food as quickly as possible, fast-casual restaurants offer more in terms of food quality, dining room décor and additional table services.  

Fast casual eateries do not offer drive-through service. Both fast casual and quick-service both provide food order and pick-up services from a counter, which vastly improves speed of service. However, some of these distinctions begin to blur in areas like deliveries and drive-through service which were previously confined to quick-service concepts. Panera Bread is one fast casual concept finding great success with drive through service, sandwich chain Jimmy John promotes convenient delivery options. 

Research suggests that fast casual restaurants are among the industry leaders in restaurant growth and expansion.[Source]

Learn more about: Different Types of Restaurants

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