Part One: QSR to Fast Casual

About ten or so years ago on the foodservice scale, the usual dining out suspects included quick serve (fast food), casual and family restaurants, and fine dining establishments. One could easily pick out a quick serve location (i.e. McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Long John Silvers) by its limited menu, minimum to no table service, prices per meal capped at around $6 per person, and typically included a drive-thru window.

What most foodservice scales are showing today is a developing “grey area” situated in between quick serve and casual dining – currently labeled “fast casual.” Sitting in its grey area, fast casual created its own definition by being faster than casual dining, but not quite as fast as quick serve all while still remaining convenient. Fast casual’s freshly prepared food is typically higher quality compared to quick serve, meal pricing is at $8-$15 per person, and locations usually include some sort of limited table service. An added plus is that a good majority of places serve alcohol.

No wonder why the fast casual segment has exploded over recent years – consumers love them and companies want to be them!

In order to stay relevant to the consumer’s ever-changing mindset, quick serve establishments have been frantically searching for new ways to invent themselves. Some chose to switch up a couple menu items and others renovated locations inside and out, but a handful literally created fast casual versions of themselves.

Two out of the three Yum! Brands concepts, KFC and Taco Bell, both opened fast casual versions of themselves in August 2013 and 2014, respectively. Although some customers believed KFC Eleven was replicating Chipotle too much, the fast casual concept’s Yelp webpage has numerous positive comments about its “healthier” menu items and quite “friendly” and “knowledgeable” staff. Taco Bell’s fast casual creation, U.S. Taco Company, shares absolutely no similarities with the Taco Bell brand except the word “taco”. The Huntington Beach, CA-located restaurant serves lobster, brisket, and “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner” tacos, roasted chili queso, and “Friggen Fried Ice Cream”.

Recently, McDonald’s took its first attempt at fast casual by opening a remodeled, standalone (former McCafe) now called The Corner. The Australia-based location includes table service and offers menu items such as chipotle pulled pork, salads featuring Moroccan roasted chicken breast, soy bean and cannellini snacks, and fresh cut fruit.

Another option for entering the grey area of fast casual is to turn certain locations into a complete new experience for guests. For example, when the clock strikes 4pm at one of the 32 participating Starbucks locations, guests are essentially experiencing the same Starbucks’ inviting atmosphere, but with a twist. At a Starbucks Evening location, guests can unwind with a glass of wine, explore a variety of small plates, and indulge in an assortment of desserts. Don’t worry; guests are still able to order their favorite cup of coffee at any time.

In due time, I imagine that the grey area surrounding the fast casual segment will increase in size and will soon encompass a majority of the dining establishments we tend to frequent on a monthly, weekly, and sometimes daily basis. Quick serve establishments will continue to mimic the Chipotle and Panera trend, while casual dining restaurants will open mini-me replicas to accommodate fast casual demands.