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When one sub-segment of the restaurant industry experiences double digit growth while the economy falters, restaurateurs need to understand the driving forces behind this movement. Fast casual is a sub-segment of the limited service restaurant category distinguished by their higher quality offerings and a $9–$13 check average, with more diners enjoying meals on premise than at Quick Service Restaurants. Counter-service ensures speed and eliminates the need for patrons to tip. As a working mother of two elementary-age girls, I get it. I want to get in and get out without blowing my budget, but this is my time too and I want to unwind in a pleasant environment with fresh and exciting menu options. Evidently, I am in good company. Over the past five years, fast casual restaurants have realized an 11 percent compound annual growth rate versus the industry average of 1.1 percent according to Technomic. 

The evolution is occurring as consumers’ expectations rise and the dining experience plays a larger role in patrons’ venue selection. According to research from Technomic, fast casual menu offerings are the most craveable, with food quality at par with full-service casual dining restaurants. Fast casual food is considered the most innovative and, due to the emphasis on freshness, believed to have the healthiest options. Fast casuals over-index with higher income groups who are less impacted by the recession, as well as with younger consumers. Growing up with the Food Network, increased travel and easy access to ethnic restaurants, younger generations have come to expect better quality and more flavorful foods. Social consciousness and sustainability are key components at chains such as Chipotle, Firehouse Subs and Pret and help to uniquely position these concepts.  

While casual dining restaurants are rated the highest on decor and atmosphere, fast casuals out rank mid-scale restaurants and Quick Service Restaurants on these same criteria. The atmosphere at fast casuals is typically more inviting than at other Limited Service Restaurants. Guests are encouraged to linger at tables with comfortable seating, pleasing decor and free WiFi. Branding is well entrenched throughout these establishments – from clever wall art to appealing food imagery, to colorful logoed napkins – each element is carefully orchestrated to create a unique dining experience. Image is essential – from the entry way, to the tabletop, and even the washroom – you’ll not find mis-matched bathroom fixtures here.

Naturally, high growth in this segment is attracting new players and we are seeing casual dining chains spin off fast casual concepts such as Uno Due Go and IHOP Express. Quick Service Restaurants are stepping up their game – consider Domino’s Artisan Pizza and White Castle’s test of beer and wine. To maintain momentum, some fast casuals are experimenting with elements from other formats such as drive-through service at Panera and Mama Fu’s table service at dinner. To compete in this dynamic environment, restaurants need to elevate the dining experience for their guests by innovative food offerings, enhancing their image and finding new ways of communicating their uniqueness.