Fast casual restaurants are all the rage right now. Chains like Chipotle, Noodles & Company, and Buffalo Wild Wings are generating healthy profits despite using more expensive, high-quality and sustainable ingredients and more sophisticated preparation techniques. So what can traditional restaurants learn from the success of these unique fast casual restaurant offerings? Let’s examine some of the benefits and challenges of the fast casual restaurant trend.
- They’re a hybrid model. Fast casual restaurants have the advantage of falling somewhere between fast food and casual sit-down restaurants where the food quality is typically higher. This gives the fast casual restaurant an advantage over more traditional sit-down restaurants because customers are predisposed to not eat there because of any preconceived notions about price or food quality.
- Their prices are reasonable but not cheap. Prices for a typical meal at a fast casual restaurant like Mad Greens generally fall between $7 and $12. This gives customers the perception that they’re paying for a better quality meal but the dining experience also won’t eat up their entire lunch hour.
- They’re hip. Because fast casual dining operations can be more flexible, nimble and creative, it allows fast casual restaurants to respond to food trends and popular requests far more quickly than a typical sit-down restaurant operation. That means that a chef at a fast casual restaurant can sample the offerings of local food trucks in Portland, Oregon during the morning and have a creative, hot-selling dinner item by later that evening.
- Sustainability sells. Chipotle has spent millions of dollars changing its operations to use higher-quality sustainable ingredients, even going so far as to ban GMO-modified foods from its restaurants. It might sound like financial suicide but the Mexican chain’s big risk is paying off as customers now come seeking out Chipotle as much for their company values as for a taco at lunchtime.
- They flow. Part of the genius of fast casual restaurants is that they are often custom designed to work in terms of the layout of the kitchen and the flow of customers through the restaurants. Many fast casual restaurants use sophisticated video surveillance and business intelligence packages to analyze the flow of traffic through the restaurant to maximize their customer count and reduce lines and bottlenecks that might drive away potential diners.
- They understand branding. Most fast casual restaurants go out of their way to present a specific identity to their customers. Chipotle drives large lines that testify to the quality of their ingredients. Many fast casual restaurants offer free wi-fi Internet to encourage customers to treat the restaurant like a cozy space for both meetings and meetups. Red Robin even diversified its entire operation to tap into the fast casual trend, creating its spin-off Burger Works to identify itself as having the same quality as its full-scale restaurants without the cost and time involved in the sit-down experience.
By really examining what appeals to customers about fast casual restaurants, more traditional restaurateurs may find new and innovative techniques that will appeal to new fans, more creative ways to design their customer experience, and ways to make their restaurants more efficient and profitable.