When fast casual first entered the limited-service dining scene, it mostly abided to the same day-part focus as traditional fast food: lunch and perhaps breakfast. But in recent years, some brands have begun targeting dinner with special menus, more relaxed ambiance, and, in some cases, hybrid models.
These efforts have yielded promising results for operators, although the approaches differ depending on the brand and its clientele. Some witnessed the best results by switching to full service at dinner, while others found that limited service throughout the day was the best bet.
One unexpected component fast casuals are touting as key to winning dinner? Delivery options.
Aaron Lyons / Co-owner and CEO, Dish Society
In the original business plan, we were going to be counter service during dinner. We made the decision to offer full service during dinner prior to opening.
The lunch-dinner split is pretty even from a sales perspective—about 45 percent each—although our average check is higher at dinner so traffic is slightly less. We have largely established ourselves as a brunch/lunch destination, so it can be hard for consumers to think about us as a dinner option. People don’t tend to eat dinner at the same place they eat breakfast.
We’re a “flex casual” that offers counter service for breakfast, lunch, and brunch, and full service at dinner. I think that’s why dinner works for us; we don’t really change the menu, just service style. Our guests want to be served, not necessarily wait in line. Our menu and pricing are very approachable, so we’re able to offer a $50 experience for $25.
I don’t necessarily think people don’t want full service during dinner. We obviously made the bet that they do, and our sales validate that. There’s a demand for fast casual during dinner, but not really among our core demographic. I think the more important thing to focus on is the emergence of delivery platforms, which neutralizes a lot of the decision-making for service style during dinner.
Irene Li/ Cofounder, Mei Mei
[We discontinued a hybrid service structure] to simplify our model so we could focus on developing our team and expanding our business. We practice open-book management, which consists of business education, financial transparency, and profit sharing. Streamlining in both the kitchen and the dining room helped us make room for that.
Dinner is still a priority in a lot of ways. Our ticket averages are higher, and we sell more alcohol. It is about 55 percent of our restaurant sales, though lunch is when we execute a lot of our catering, which is a big piece of our overall revenue.
The key for fast-casual dinner is creating a space that is conducive to a more relaxed, slow-paced meal; our dining room is cozy and not too bright. We also try to highlight the upsides to casual dining: Your friends can drop in, you dine at your own pace, it’s more family-friendly than finer dining, and you have price-point flexibility.
I definitely think dinner is now a serious daypart for fast casuals. Flexible and casual dining appeals to millennials who have diverse needs. If you’re in your early 30s and need a restaurant where you can feed your kids, entertain your parents, meet up with your single friends, and beyond, a fast casual, especially a higher-end one with alcohol, is most likely to meet your needs.
Anthony Pigliacampo/ Cofounder, Modern Market
We wanted to build a restaurant we would want to eat at every day, and that started with both lunch and dinner. Guests are looking for delicious, affordable, and fast meals not only for breakfast and lunch, but also for dinner. For dinner specifically, our Hand Carved Plates are very popular with a choice of protein (sustainable salmon, heritage pulled pork, organic tofu, free-range chicken, or natural angus steak) and two sides. Brick-oven pizzas are also a favorite, as are our grain bowls and salads.
Like many fast casuals, we compete with full-service restaurants or home cooking for evening business. Some guests want table service for dinner, while others want to stay home and cook with their families. We speak to those looking for something fast yet affordable and also good for you. For those who want to stay in, we make it easy by partnering with delivery services like DoorDash.
An on-the-go lifestyle is the new way of life. Our food is prepared fast, and it makes you feel good. Before we opened the first Modern Market, we knew that type of food was missing from the casual-dining scene. Fast casual is one of the fastest-growing segments because most people don’t have the luxury to sit down for more than 20 minutes to enjoy a meal.