Consumer Expectations for Fast-Casual Restaurants: Six Insights

Fast-casual restaurants position themselves as offering freshly prepared items that are a notch above those from traditional fast-food outlets in taste and quality, but presented in a more convenient and affordable format than casual-dining restaurants (CDRs). But what parts of this equation are most important to fast-casual consumers? What’s most likely to bring them back to a fast-casual concept, and what will drive them away? Technomic’s latest Consumer Brand Metrics study sought to answer these and other questions about consumers’ attitudes and behaviors.

Overall, two-thirds of consumers—70 percent of men and 63 percent of women—say they visit fast-casual restaurants at least monthly. That’s compared with 91 percent of consumers who say the same for fast-food restaurants and 68 percent who report visiting traditional casual-dining restaurants with that frequency. Smaller shares of consumers say they visit coffee cafes or family-style or upscale restaurants monthly. Fast-food outlets retain a clear lead in terms of visitation, but the fast-casual category is neck-and-neck with the CDR segment for regular visits.

So what are consumers looking for from fast-casual concepts? Following are several insights from the Consumer Brand Metrics Q2 2013 report.

  1. Consumers have higher expectations for friendly service at fast-casual restaurants than at fast-food restaurants, but they rate speed of service as equally important for both segments. Ninety-five percent of consumers said friendly service is an important factor when they’re choosing a fast-casual restaurant, versus 90 percent who said the same with respect to fast-food restaurants. However, for both segments, 90 percent said service speed is important in their restaurant selection.
  2. From a service perspective, order accuracy trumps everything else. Ninety-six percent of consumers said order accuracy is important or very important at fast-casual restaurants; nearly equal shares said the same for fast-food and traditional casual-dining restaurants.
  3. Poor food/beverage quality is the biggest factor that will deter guests from visiting a fast-casual concept again. It’s also a bigger deterrent for fast-casual concepts than it is for fast-food or full-service concepts. Consumers were asked to identify their top deal-breaker—the issue that would be most likely to keep them from returning to a given restaurant. For fast-casual restaurants, 50 percent of consumers cited poor food/beverage quality; 20 percent said high prices. For fast-food restaurants, the shares were 45 percent and 23 percent, respectively.
  4. Consumers who have children value healthful kids’ menu options. Among consumers who reported ordering from the kids’ menu for their children at fast-casual restaurants, 52% cited availability of healthful options as a reason for doing so. That’s far ahead of the 36 percent and 27 percent who cited healthful selections as a reason they order from the kids’ menu at fast-food and traditional casual-dining restaurants, respectively.
  5. Fast-casual consumers want access to nutrition information. Fifty-three percent said nutrition info availability is important when they’re choosing a fast-casual restaurant. This access was less important to consumers in choosing a fast-food restaurant (47 percent) or a casual-dining restaurant (44 percent).
  6. Younger consumers value drive-thru availability. Nearly half of consumers ages 18–34 (but only 35 percent of consumers overall) said drive-thru service is an important attribute for fast-casual restaurants. With respect to fast-food restaurants, 61 percent of consumers said a drive-thru window is important.

What can we glean from all of this? Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that consumers’ expectations of fast-casual restaurants are as high as those the segment has set for itself. Consumers were nearly as likely to rate friendly service a priority for fast-casual restaurants as for traditional casual-dining restaurants. But they also rate speed as much of a factor in their selection of a fast-casual restaurant as a fast-food restaurant. And when it comes to helping consumers make healthful choices, the bar for fast-casual restaurants may be higher than it is for both fast-food and casual-dining concepts.

Fast-casual consumers are attentive to the whole of the restaurant experience. Though the segment has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade, it likely remains the one with which consumers are least familiar. Fast-casual concepts promise the best of both (limited- and full-service) worlds; consumers, it seems, expect nothing less.

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Darren Tristano

Darren Tristano is President of Technomic Inc. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations.

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