The term Fast Casual was coined in the 1990s but it wasn’t until what some call the Great Recession that the industry really got traction. Consumers needed to be smarter about how they spent their money, but they didn’t want to sacrifice health or taste. Fast-casual restaurants gladly stepped in to fill the void.
The business model – fresher food, fast service, lower prices – is paying off. Fast Casual is the fastest-growing segment in the restaurant industry.
Sales jumped 13 percent at most fast-casual restaurants last year. Some of the larger chains saw sales increase by 16 percent, according to a report from Technomic earlier this year. By comparison, the fast-food industry reported a 5 percent sales increase in 2012, according to a Euromonitor International report.
As more establishments look to find their way into the growing segment, many are starting to provide limited table service as a differentiator, and the integration of technology plays a key role in making that possible.
Speedy Service is a Must
The entire idea of Fast Casual is catering to busy individuals who value high-quality food, quick service and an affordable price. Increasingly, all elements must be there to provide the customer experience diners have come to expect.
Diners don’t care if the kitchen is slammed with call-in orders or that preparing the hand-carved roast beef panini takes twice as long as other menu options. Since food prep often takes longer in a fast-casual restaurant, time must be saved in other areas, such as delivery of food to the table.
Many Fast Casuals have found a solution in table tracking systems that not only speed service, but also improve staff efficiency, clear up clutter on tabletops and eliminate dining room confusion. The cashier simply gives each customer a device about the size of a smart phone. Once placed on a table, the device sends that table’s number to a touch-screen display in the kitchen.
That touch-screen display plays an important role in assuring good service. It shows a running timer on each order. To keep everyone on their toes, orders are color-coded to alert the staff when the acceptable time is exceeded. When the order is ready, food runners know exactly where to go. There’s no bobbing and weaving through the dining room with a plate of food looking for a specific table tent number. Diners get their food faster and fresher, and restaurants generally need fewer food runners.
After delivering the order, runners can track other actions such as “clearing” the tracking device, which stops the timer for food delivery, or “clearing” the table which tracks table turn times. Such tracking systems have the added benefit of creating a database, so managers and owners can verify service quality and identify problem areas or times of day when service might need to be beefed up.
In the end, that’s the true value of the technology underlying Fast Casual. It ensures that every customer gets a restaurant’s best effort, and it puts managers in the position of monitoring and controlling operations.
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Jason Barge is a marketing manager at LRS and an expert in communications for the hospitality industry.