Fast Casual | April 2017 | By Mary Avant

Fast Casual Makes its Dinner Push

Fast casual 2.0 chains are going after the evening daypart with an arsenal of plated meals, craft beverages, and linger-worthy ambiance.
At night, Urbanbelly bolsters its service with crewmembers who serve alcohol and deliver food to the table. Urbanbelly
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For decades, lunch has been the most important daypart for driving traffic and sales in the limited-service industry. And while it still is—and may always be—research from The NPD Group shows that lunch traffic has begun to slow in the last several years, thanks to more consumers working from and eating at home, as well as being pickier about where they spend their dollars.

That’s why many fast casuals are trying to capture consumer interest in their second-biggest daypart—dinner—by relying on elevated service, upscale environments, and higher-quality food and beverage offerings.

Larry Reinstein, president of restaurant consulting firm LJR Hospitality Ventures, says dinner is the biggest area of opportunity for fast casuals, especially when it comes to increasing profitability. “When you’re going after lunch, you’re competing with [quick service]. When you’re competing at night, you’re competing much more with casual dining,” he says, noting that guests are willing to spend more for dinner than for lunch.

At Atlanta-based MetroFresh, for example, the average lunch check is $11–$12, whereas the average dinner check is $15. At Minneapolis-based Agra Culture, a larger number of families visiting for dinner means the average check jumps from $17 at lunch to $22 at night.

“If you go at night to a fast casual and you spend $15, and you would have spent $20 with casual dining, then ultimately the value is better,” Reinstein says. “There’s a better spend and a better value perception with doing dinner service, but you do have to provide a little bit more of a dinner experience if you truly want to compete.”

At MetroFresh, food is the biggest traffic driver at dinner, with the brand offering four upscale, made-to-order entrées that change on a daily basis. “They’re really what you would call white-tablecloth quality,” says founder and owner Mitchell Anderson. “They’re beautifully plated and really well done at a good price.” Dinner options are typically $14–$18. 

In addition to salads and sandwiches, Agra Culture’s full grill allows the chef-driven brand to freshly cook, prepare, and plate its entrées—such as steak and potatoes, chicken tacos, and Asian-style salmon with brown rice—in-house. “They’re warm, which helps in the wintertime and obviously at nighttime, when people expect a little more of a warm experience than a cold salad or sandwich,” says founder and CEO Aaron Switz.

While Agra Culture offers a consistent menu all day long, Switz says, bolstering the menu with more dinner-like options—tacos, flatbreads, bowls, and sides like harissa yams and truffled mushrooms—made a noticeable difference in evening sales, which now make up 35 percent of its business. “The new menu change is really what did it for us to get us to the level that exceeds most fast casuals,” Switz says.

Many dinner-minded fast casuals are finding that it is critical to appeal to dinner diners with alcoholic beverages, including wine, liquor, and beer. Reinstein says the beer selection must feature draft, local, and craft beers to compete in the space.

In addition to wines on tap, Chicago-based Urbanbelly offers drinking vinegars in flavors like blood orange, passionfruit, and coconut, to which guests can add shots of liquor if desired.

Though Urbanbelly is a counter-service concept, it employs dinner servers who bus tables, serve alcohol, and deliver food to guests in an attempt to offer not only higher-quality menu items like Lemongrass Chicken and Mushroom Pho, but also an equally elevated level of service. Its two locations also have portable POS systems, allowing diners to order additional items from the table.

During dinner, MetroFresh has one server manning the wine bar and another acting as food runner. This allows the restaurant to touch tables more at night, guaranteeing that guests are satisfied and driving a higher check average by pushing wine and dessert sales.

In addition to enhanced service, fine-dining touches—dimming the lights, putting candles on tables, using cloth linens and china—also create a notable difference in atmosphere between lunch and dinner. “We’re trying to have a really bright, vivacious restaurant during the day, and then take it down a notch to a more pleasant ambiance at night,” Anderson says. The brand also hosts music nights featuring local singer-songwriters, as well as spring and summer Taco Nights.

Switz says Agra Culture’s high-end finishes, light fixtures, woodwork, and molding combine to deliver a more upscale environment for dinner guests. “All that stuff has a very nice appeal, even during the day,” he says. “But at night, because of it being a nicer setting, it makes it more of a potential dinnertime spot for people.”

Comfortable seating options are also crucial to making guests stop in and linger over dinner. Urbanbelly has communal seating, which can appeal to both groups and solo diners. It also offers charging stations and WiFi for guests who want to stick around to stream their favorite Netflix shows.

“In 20 or 30 minutes, they could watch a show, and that could be their evening: having something to eat, watching something they want to watch, then being able to go home,” says chef and owner Bill Kim.

While food is a crucial component to attracting diners to fast-casual spots for dinner, Reinstein says elevated environmental touches are what turn them into loyal guests. “I’m a firm believer that people come in for food,” he says, “but they come back because of the service and the experience.”

This story originally appeared in QSR's April 2017 issue with the title "The Deal with Dinner."