As much of the U.S. restaurant industry continues to struggle with sluggish customer visits, the fast casual channel continues to grow. Visits to fast casual restaurants have grown 6 percent annually over the last five years, stemming in large part from store openings, reports The NPD Group, a leading global information company.
Fast casual units have grown at a compound annual growth rate of 7 percent over the last five years. Fast casual chain expansion increased units from 19,231 units in 2013 to 25,118 units in 2017, according to NPD’s Fall 2017 ReCount restaurant census.
Although fast casual is the only restaurant channel growing visits, fast casual traffic growth has slowed in the last two quarters. Compared to a 7 percent visit growth in the third quarter of 2017, fast casual traffic was up only 4 percent in the quarters ending December 2017 and March 2018. Total restaurant industry traffic in the last quarter of 2017 and first quarter of 2018 was flat. In the year ending May 2018, total restaurant visits remained flat and visits to fast casual restaurants were up 5 percent. Chipotle, Panera, Panda Express, and Raising Canes are the top growing fast casual chains in terms of customer visits.
The fast casual customers who have more than their fair share of visits are those between 18-24 years of age and consumers with a household income of $100,000. Weekday lunch is a popular time for these and other fast casual customers to visit but all dayparts are showing growth versus prior year.
The popularity of fast casual restaurants has spawned an upscale level of fast casual restaurants, which are called fine casual or fast fine. Fine casual restaurants have counter service like other fast casual restaurants but offer a higher level of service and fine dining elements. In addition to the benefit of quick service, fine casual restaurant atmospheres attract more lingering dining experiences, like business meetings and date nights.
“Fast casual continues to be a bright spot in the U.S. restaurant industry because they are providing consumers exactly what they want,” says David Portalatin, NPD Food Industry Advisor. “They offer quick and good service, high quality food, and a pleasant experience. It’s really the not-so-secret-sauce of success.”