Fast Casual: Why It’s Working and How To Make It Work for You


In your eight-year-old dreams, would you ever have imagined paying $13 for a bowl full of Mr. Noodles with Chinese broccoli and an egg? Me neither. And yet, those same noodles you used to crush to a pulp and munch on when mom forgot to make lunch are now being served fast and furious at legitimate, sought after restaurants. Fast casual ramen restaurants are popping up everywhere and the noodle dish is now served not just as a trendy feature at an established joint, but as a permanent fixture in an emerging submarket.


Fast casual - a relatively new, uneasily defined subgenre of restaurant - is proving that some food trends are here to stay. In 2013, sales in the fast-casual industry hit around $35 billion, an increase of 11% from the year previous, positioning it as the fastest growing foodservice segment globally. And as the numbers continue to roll in, we can see it’s only going up from there.


This brings about the larger question: what is it about fast casual that’s winning so much market share and disrupting the landscape of the food industry as we know it?


Enter Millennials with their wildly “different” perspective on the world and food as we know it. They’re the fastest growing generation and, by golly, do they have demands. Those demands dictate where they put their precious pennies. In essence, they want food fast, but they want healthy, cheap and trendy food simultaneously.


In this article we’ll explore four ways fast casual is winning over Millennials and provide all restaurants with an understanding of how to use fast casual tactics to appeal to this new generation of customers.


1. Fast Casual is Mobile

Fast isn’t fast enough. 44% of Millennials prefer to pay for goods and services using their mobile phone rather than with cash. In particular, this applies to smaller purchases. Thus, fast casual restaurants are leveraging the power of mobile, using the latest pick-up apps and POS technology to ensure that their customers are having a feed that’s quick, whether they’re just stopping in for a bite or taking food back to their desk.  As you may well know, pick-up apps offer a range of options that allow customers to order, pay and pick up without the wait, and the latest POS technology allows tableside orders and billing so customers get a smooth and snackable dining experience that moves as fast as they do.


2.  Fast Casual Turns a Healthy Cheek

Many fast casual chains are leveraging healthy eating options to their benefit. But we should note that Millennials have changed the definition of “healthy”. A green salad with a couple carrots isn’t enough. As reported by Morgan Stanley, “While previous generations counted calories, Millennials care more about food being ‘fresh, less processed and with fewer artificial ingredients.’” Healthy isn’t just veggies; the definition now includes fresh, organic ingredients and protein-powered dishes that fill you.


Macintosh HD:Users:lenadesmond:Desktop:screen shot 2015-03-25 at 10.47.14 am.jpgImage source: Morgan Stanley 



3. Fast Casual Cares

Where did this meat come from? Is your produce locally sourced? Is it organic? Is it sustainable? Was a chef burned in the baking of this pizza? Were dishwashers harmed in the cleaning of this plate?


In a Cone Communications study, it was reported that “nine-in-ten Millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause.” Thus sustainability has become synonymous with the new and shiny fast casual industry.


Beyond the benefits of do-gooding, sourcing local ingredients and making sustainability a priority does, plain and simple, make for a good business strategy and a better product.


On sustainability, Jeff Harvey, CEO of fast casual chain Burgerville Restaurants, said, “It generates a return, develops economic vitality, attracts exceptionally passionate talent, differentiates you from others and helps you develop the skills and capabilities you need to compete.”


4. Fast Casual is Cheap and Fast, Sort Of

The numbers show that while Millennials still frequent fast food joints like McDonalds – there’s something about a 2am Big Mac that beats a Buddha Bowl – they don’t exactly want you to know they are there and they definitely wouldn’t recommend a fast food restaurant to a friend. According to Morgan Stanley, it’s the lack of food quality at McDonald's that prevents Millennials from recommending the brand to a friend. 


In addition, market analysis shows that while fast food prices range from $3-$6 USD on average, fast casual meals typically costs between the $8-15 mark. “This range difference is due to the additional costs of high quality organic ingredients and flavors in the dishes and other conveniences such as non-plastic proper dining utensils and plates in a soothing ambiance.” Bringing all the previous proof points together, Millennials happily fork out the extra dough because fast casual matches their values.


So, with this all in mind, how can you use Fast Casual tactics to appeal to this next generation customer, even if you’re not a fast casual establishment?


  • Get Techy: Invest your time in setting up mobile offerings and invest in the best restaurant POS software to help drive efficiency and speed in your business.

  • Get Healthy: Research local food suppliers and sustainable vendors to help cater your menu to the healthy, or at least fresh, demands of your customers.

  • Get Green (And Tell Everyone!): Make your fresh, organic, sustainable efforts known! And price accordingly.

  • Get Fast (but not too fast): Even if you’re a dine-in restaurant, streamline your operational processes for a smoother guest experience or consider offering take-out options.




About the Author

Andrea Victory

Andrea was a Content Marketing Specialist and Editor at TouchBistro where she wrote about restaurant and dining trends, restaurant management, and food culture. A self-affirmed food geek, Andrea devours cookbooks and food blogs. She also knows how to make a killer kale salad.

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