Fast food is no longer just sloppy cheeseburgers and greasy french fries. It is instead being redefined by consumers who are looking for quick, quality menu items of value in modern dining rooms throughout the quick-service industry, according to a report by food consulting firm Technomic.

“You have always heard the term ‘fast food,’ and now you are hearing the term ‘food fast,’” says Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at Technomic.

The firm’s report showed that 41 percent of consumers said their idea of fast food has broadened to include fast-casual and full-service establishments.

“What it says is that there is a larger audience continuing to open up to the sort of thing we do,” says Scott Davis, chief concept officer for Panera Bread, which has built its concept around the expanding definition. “While there will be more competition out there, we also see it as more opportunity.”

Tristano says the expansion of the definition of fast food is causing industry giants to take a hard look at themselves. McDonald’s, for instance, started building more contemporary dining rooms and more efficient drive thrus and kitchens.

“The majority of people are now asking more from a quick-service operation,” Davis says. “Quick-service operators are getting a lot more strategic in how they are looking at their menus and taking pieces of their menu to try to adapt to that consumer.

“For us, we look at the whole package. It’s not just the food. It’s not just the décor … it’s a mindset.”

To lure consumers in accordance to this new definition of fast food, quick-service marketers should present their brand’s strengths in a compelling, value-oriented fashion to the consumer, says Kevin Moll, CEO of National Restaurant Consultants Inc.

“Today’s restaurant operators are selling to a consumer who has been financially impacted in a negative way, and as such, this consumer is specifically looking for two things: convenience and value,” says Moll, whose firm helps fast-food clients with their marketing initiatives. “If the marketing proposal misses these two targets, it will not be effective.”

To respond to the consumer’s change in definition, Tristano says chains should consider using higher-quality ingredients and create processes in which meals are made to order. With their customers in mind, quick-service chains should also evaluate their price points and their dining rooms to react to the changing consumer definition and expectations, Tristano says.

“People want a very clean décor with a lot of different seating arrangements,” Tristano says. “The music that is being played is also important … to attract a hipper, cooler generation.”

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