If you don’t want fast food and you don’t want an expensive full service meal, a fast-casual restaurant might be just the ticket. According to a recent Mintel foodservice report, the fast casual restaurant category accounted for estimated sales of $23 billion in 2010, up nearly 30 percent since 2006.
Restaurants in this market claim to combine the quality of family casual with the convenience of fast food. At $6–$12 per ticket, pricing falls between fast food and casual dining. Fast casual restaurants distinguish themselves from fast food through their modified table service, higher food quality, greater attention to healthful foods, and, in some cases, availability of beer and wine.
“The relatively new fast-casual category has fared well through the recession as people can see the added value in the food and atmosphere, despite the slightly higher price point,” says Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research at Mintel. “The majority of restaurant-goers say quality is the most important determinant in their choice of a restaurant, which will continue to help this category grow.”
Fast-casual restaurants have not yet displaced fast food, casual dining, pizza, or family dining restaurants, but this fairly young category makes its strongest statement during the lunch hour, with patronage levels almost equaling that of casual dining (26 percent of respondents have visited a fast-casual restaurant in the past month and 28 percent a casual-dining restaurant). However, fast food still holds a strong lead with nearly 60 percent of Mintel respondents frequenting a fast food establishment for lunch within the past month.
Giandelone says the main reason fast-casual restaurants lag so far behind fast food is simply that there aren’t as many of them. One of the most successful fast-casual chains, Panera Bread, had 1,388 locations as of March 2010, while fast food leader McDonald’s had 10 times that number of restaurants in the US.
Nearly 30 percent of those surveyed cite the reason for not frequenting a fast-casual restaurant in the past month as “there are no/not many fast casual restaurants by me.” Just over a quarter of respondents (26 percent) claim they are too expensive and 22 percent prefer a regular wait staff when they dine out.