Today’s “fast casual” dining is more than a buzzword being used by the restaurant industry.
It’s not fast food and it’s not your corner deli, rather it’s a new defined niche in dining that costs only slightly more than traditional retail fast food.
Lunchtime business diners used to have three choices: grab a value meal at a fast food joint, try to squeeze in a sit-down meal, or brown-bag it. Now, they have another.
Fast casual dining has the ambiance of casual dining with the speed of fast food, but with superior food quality and delivered at an intermediate price point.
According to Restaurants & Institutions, “Fast casual is often characterized by fresh, handmade items where there is a perceived ‘healthier’ menu that has a modest price point. The food is usually prepped in an open-line kitchen, typical of a deli or sub shop. The ingredients are laid out so customers can point to what they want. It’s a win-win retail concept offering operators decreased labor and quick table turns while giving customers a fast, high-quality meal.”
– Market Expanding
“The industry is broadening, particularly in regards to what we call fast food or, really, self-service kinds of concepts,” said Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., a food-service industry consulting firm. “Basically, what it’s doing is giving the consumer an in-between alternative. It’s still a limited-service offering. It’s not full service, but it gives a higher-quality food, generally at a fair price.”
As if the new fast casual vertical market was not enough, Einstein Bros. is taking a new spin to the space. With 15 stores in San Diego and over 374 nationwide in 29 states, the company is actively redefining themselves as an emerging leader in the “Quick Casual” dining segment.
The company is working to fill the gap between fast food and full service by having their unique cafes/bakeries feature trendy fusion specialty sandwiches and salads, fresh-baked goods, and award-winning bagels. Fusion cuisine combines the ingredients or cooking techniques of two or more cultures and is growing in popularity in many eateries today. Einstein’s new branding of quick casual further illustrates the vast growth and competition in retail businesses’ positioning of restaurants today.
Other San Diego eateries such as Rubio’s Baja Grill play a big part in this category. One of the major players in this new niche is, not surprisingly, the fast food chains.
The big boys in fast food are very aware of this new trend. They’re trying to broaden their menu as much as they can.
Restaurants such as McDonald’s have brought many non-burger concepts as a way to increase its domestic growth in a market that is saturated with traditional fast food. Other casual dining restaurants that are developing “offspring” include Chili’s Express and Chili’s Too, T.G.I. Friday’s Express and the recently opened Little Fish Market in Mission Valley , a fast dining miniature to the San Diego fish house.
– Innovative Menu Choices
To survive, restaurants today must stay on the forefront and define trends within their industry. There are a lot more dining dollars out there and a lot more competition, so they demand and expect more creativity and freshness.
Offering convenience and affordability and constant evolution are clearly going to be the mainstay for the future of the many retail establishments that compete within this vertical market.
The average fast casual customer visits these establishments 3.7 times per month with a ticket average of $7.07 per visit. When asked the main reason diners frequent these retail establishments in a retail study of 400 fast casual customers in March, the overwhelming response was quality of food, followed by convenience to work and home.
“We faced many operational challenges when we expanded our business to be more than just bagels,” said Paul Murphy, executive vice president of operations, Einstein Bros. “We were not equipped to handle new menu items that were introduced in our stores and it caused some strain at first, but ultimately it was good. We were forced to adapt and move our business forward to compete against the best in the industry. To survive, we learned to stay on the forefront and be creative. Today we see our menu as cutting edge and are defining the industry.”
The dining dollars are out there and so are the establishments to capture them. The biggest question of all is in this uncertain future of our economy, who will be around tomorrow? Regardless of who emerges, the consumer appears better off, because more choices and the newer menu items have raised the standards for the entire industry giving lunchtime business diners more options than ever before.
Curry is president and CEO of c3 Communications, Inc., a local public relations agency