In 2015, “fast casual” remains the biggest trend in the restaurant industry. Since 1999, it’s grown 550 percent, while fast food and casual dining have stayed almost flat. That’s a 15-year streak restaurateurs can’t ignore.
While some of the most successful eateries are fast casual, it isn’t that easy to define. Just what is it, and what will it morph into over the next few years?
What it’s not: fast food
Fast food giants like McDonalds, Taco Bell, and a host of others prepare food in quantity and serve it up fast. And despite $4.6 billion in advertising to the contrary, that food has dubious nutritional value and even less taste.
Fast food can be summed up as a “canned” menu, with few options. The customer orders at the counter, pays at the counter, and waits for their food at the counter. They carry their food to a table in a minimal dining room, eat and bus their own table.
Since there’s little in the way of “experience,” they also leave as quickly as possible. Whether the guest actually enjoyed their food – or considered the experience stellar – is beside the point.
What it’s also not: full service casual
At the opposite end of the spectrum, full service restaurants attend their patrons from the time they arrive. A hostess greets the guests and places them on a waiting list. She encourages them to relax in the bar area and then escorts them to their table.
Often these restaurants apply smart technology to make the guests’ stay even more pleasant. They may, for example, use a paging system to quietly alert the guest to return to the host when their table is ready.
Once seated, a server presents the menu, recommends the chef’s specials and takes the order. Often the same person delivers the meal, offers dessert and presents the check. In full casual, it’s all about the quality of the experience.
What it is: Everything in between?
Todays’ diners – especially the millennials – are tired of fast food. They don’t mind ordering at the counter. But they want quality food and a great atmosphere. They want it fast, without all the fuss of being waited on.
In step fast casual restaurants (FCRs).
Some of the most iconic FCRs are Chipotle and Panera Bread. Both have counter service. Both cater to freshness-lovers. But what makes them successful is quite different. And that makes defining what is – and what is not – fast casual difficult.
Panera rotates chef-inspired specialty items and sports relaxed dining rooms. And they run your food order to your table. In contrast, Chipotle’s dining area is warehouse chic, and you carry your own food. Its claim-to-fame is the sustainability of it food sources.
So what does make for successful fast casual? Look to the growing millennial crowd. They want a variety of creative, freshly-prepared food. They want to order and pay for it quickly, without the fuss of a waiter. They’re socially aware, so they prefer companies supporting a cause. They want to relax and socialize – and they love to be connected.
So what new “ingredients” are coming to fast casual?
And what it will be…
Obviously, the draws of freshness, convenience, and an experience continue to define the space. But so does technology.
Trends already show technology can make for a more enjoyable dining experience. Systems such as Table Tracker allow the customer to order at the counter and go find a seat – the food will find them. For FCR’s that don’t use table runners, a handy pager alerts the seated guest to pick up their food. Many FCRs provide mobile ordering apps and WiFi – even touchscreen tablets on the tables that let diners order some items and pay their bill.
Like the mobile apps, kiosks will soon allow customers to order without visiting the counter. The kiosk will deliver the guest a small RFI device to alert the kitchen where they’re sitting. And the tabletop tablets will let you order anything, even request refills without saying a word. They’ll even entertain your kids while you wait.
In a segment of restaurant service that’s still evolving, technology may be the biggest differentiator of all.
Find Out More About How Fast Casual is Changing the Restaurant Industry
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Skip Cass is the chief executive officer at LRS and an expert in operational efficiency and creating a memorable guest experience.