Fast Casual Restaurants Leading the Industry

fast casual restaurants lead industryThe growth of fast casual restaurants is leading the industry. That’s one of the key trends to watch in 2014 (2014 Restaurant Trends). Fast casual includes those establishments that don’t offer full table service but promise higher quality and better atmosphere than fast food restaurants.

Defining Fast Casual

Fast Casual Restaurant Franchise Industry Report defines fast casual as a “hybrid of quick service and casual dining that offers the consumer more freshly prepared and customized product than a fast food restaurant.” This study also indicates that this fastest growing segment of the food service industry is a recent phenomenon.

The definition of fast casual, however, tends to be a sticking point. According to QSR “Confounded by Fast-Casual,” it’s easy to describe when and how it started, types of patrons and how much they spend as well as the growth prospects, but determining the number of fast casual units depends on shifting opinions and definitions.

There tends to be a consensus that fast casual should not have a drive-through window nor offer table service. Patrons’ interactions with staff often play a part: Think about ordering a latte at Starbucks or a burrito at Chipotle. As for the average tab, fast casual is $8.00 (and possibly as high as $15.00) compared to $5.00 to $5.25 at fast food restaurants.

Growing Fast Casual Trends

According to the Franchise Direct report, the growing market segments offer Mexican food. In fact, the majority of growing Mexican restaurants were fast casual chains. Bakeries also are faring well as a growing segment within the fast casual category. These restaurants do more than serve baked goods and goodies. Healthy sandwiches and soups are typically part of their menus.

Rounding out the top five fast casual segments (according to George Green, author “Interpreting the Top 100” in QSR’s Magazine) are Other Sandwich, Hamburger, and Chicken. Pizza, Asian/Noodle, and Salads follow.

Speaking of healthy, that’s also a trend that has been very prevalent in the fast casual segment and one of the reasons for the success of this part of the overall restaurant industry. Fast casual ingredients also tend to use local produce and ingredients whenever possible, catering to patrons’ demands for local sourcing and a sustainable “green” initiative.

Top Fast Casual Establishments

FastCasual.com’s top fast casual establishments for 2013 included Fazoli’s, McAlister’s Deli, and Freebirds World Burrito as first, second and third place awards respectively, according to its press release, “Fast Casual Releases 2013 Top 100 Movers & Shakers.” The criteria for award included innovation, growth, social responsibility and overall contributions.

“It’s always difficult to select the Top 50 fast casual brands, but this year was exceptionally hard, considering the growth of the industry,” said Cherryh Butler, senior editor of FastCasual.com. “New fast casuals are opening all over the world, and well-established brands are innovating and getting creative with their menus. It’s exciting to watch the industry grow.”

Nation’s Restaurant News cites the top five fast casual chains (based on U.S. system-wide sales) as Panera Bread, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Qdoba Mexican Grill, and Einstein Bros. Bagels. QSR’s rating matched the top two (Panera and Chipotle); however, Panda Express and Zaxby’s filled the number three and four slots with Five Guys at number five.

No matter how you may define it, fast casual is leading the industry and is catering to what patrons are looking for.