Experts say the changing landscape means fast-casual operators must fine-tune every part of their offering, from the concept itself to technology implementation to the in-store experience.
With the maturation of fast casual, Flanzman says, customers naturally sort fast-casual concepts into winners and losers. He believes Brown Bag is well positioned to stand out in the ever-crowded space. It offers a sustainable, nutritious protein source customers can feel good about eating multiple times per week, he says. Though he’s undeterred by closures or contractions from other brands, they do send a clear message.
“I really root for all of them, but I also think it’s a good reminder that we better be giving everyone—everyone who walks in here, everyone who orders delivery, everyone who caters—a 10 out of 10 experience,” Flanzman says. “Maybe 10 years ago they would have come back with an eight out of 10 experience. But today there are too many 10 out of 10 experiences.”
Moving forward, a fast-casual chain must provide a compelling differentiator to survive, says Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of the New England Consulting Group. Brands can separate themselves through their technology platforms, their food, or their experience.
“But it needs to be a differentiator,” Stibel says. “The world doesn’t need another premium submarine sandwich chain. It just doesn’t. We’ve already got plenty of them.”
He says aggressive convenience and grocery stores continue to blur the lines between quick service, fast casual, and casual dining. In the coming years, he expects some fast-casual chains to push beyond regional dominance and build national footprints.
Yet even with projected growth, Stibel cautions that most fast casuals shouldn’t expect to develop long-term, exclusive relationships with customers the way some blue-chip fast-food concepts have. Young diners who gravitate toward the fast-casual segment prefer diversity in their dining habits—mirroring the way they consume a wide variety of craft beers rather than a single mainstay.
“You can remain part of that guest’s consideration set,” he says. But if you try to create an exclusive guest, you’re kidding yourself.”
Brands must carefully craft their individual concepts moving forward. But execution will matter even more, says Todd Madlener, vice president of operations for the seven-unit Coolgreens.
Madlener says he’s confident in Coolgreens’ position as a healthy choice in the market. Its wider menu of hot flatbreads, hot sandwiches, grain bowls, and wraps also helps it stand out from other salad-centric concepts. But the chain is particularly committed to team training and building a positive culture in every store.