Growth | November 2012 | By Christa Gala

The Fast-Casual Shift

A number of full-service eateries are trying their hand at fast casual.

Tablefields, a fast-casual concept from FATZ’s parent company, offers guests a q
Tablefields, a fast-casual concept from FATZ’s parent company, offers guests a quick meal in an upscale environment. Tablefields
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While the entire restaurant industry has fared well in 2012, growth in the limited-service sector has outpaced full-service concepts, leading several of the latter to experiment with fast-casual concepts.

In August, Shoney’s launched its first Shoney’s On the Go in Houston; full-service Mexican concept Abuelo’s, meanwhile, will debut the fast-casual Abuelo’s Taqueria in Lubbock, Texas, this month.

At the end of July, Café Enterprises, parent company of FATZ, launched its own limited-service concept, Tablefields Market Kitchen, in Greenville, South Carolina. “It’s something we’ve been looking into for quite some time now, honestly,” says Stephen Loftis, vice president of marketing for Café Enterprises. “We feel it’s a growth vehicle, the fast-casual segment. It targets the Millennials and future generations.”

The Tablefields menu incorporates food from local farmers and suppliers, Loftis says, including coffee, eggs, poultry, and beef. It also features artwork from local artists, as opposed to the historical black-and-white photographs displayed in FATZ restaurants.

“It’s more sophisticated and appeals to that Greenville market. It’s skewed a little younger,” Loftis says. “There’s not another restaurant here in our area that’s similar to this. I think that novelty and uniqueness has been a huge plus for us.”

Joe Pawlak, vice president of Technomic, a research firm that studies the food industry, says this trend will likely continue. “Today’s consumer has less time than ever to experience sit-down meals, so casual-dining operators are using their experience to provide good-tasting meals, but decreasing their service time. This enables them to directly compete against fast-casual players.”

In the face of increasing competition, Pawlak says, longstanding fast-casual concepts should simply keep their noses to the grindstone.

“Fast casual needs to focus on what they do very well: good food [and] fast service at a fair price,” he says.