Fast Casual’s Healthy Dose of Reinvention

Perceptions of better health have always weighed in fast-casual restaurants’ favor, which is probably why more brands are renewing their focus on healthfulness in the hopes of restarting or accelerating sales growth.

R.J. Dourney, the chief executive and largest franchisee of Così Inc., said precisely that in a recent interview with Nation’s Restaurant News, calling the fast-casual sandwich chain “blessed”—which probably no investor has said of the long-struggling brand in years.

“There’s a tailwind for fast casual,” Dourney said. “It’s a great time to be in the healthy, better-for-you segment.”

A new menu chock-full of healthful items is driving Dourney’s optimism for a turnaround at Così. Elsewhere in fast casual, Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill is changing its name to emphasize the more healthful aspects of its menu as well as to differentiate from competitors. Rubio’s Coastal Grill, as it will be called in remodeled and newly built units, hopes the health halo from its fish tacos and other seafood offerings will land the brand in the consideration set more often when consumers look for something healthful to eat away from home.

And research shows that when they do seek healthful restaurant food, they turn to fast-casual chains most often.

Fast-casual brands’ recent increase in menu innovation around healthfulness only plays to the strengths of the entire segment. The 2014 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report found that 45% of consumers say they are likely to order better-for-you options at a fast-casual restaurant. That puts fast casual in the same consideration set as full-service restaurants and prepared foods from grocery stores, which attract a similar amount of health-conscious consumers.

By contrast, only about one-third of consumers say they are likely to order healthful options at quick-service restaurants.

Consumers see a wide gap in the limited-service restaurant segment between brands serve “healthy” food and those that don’t: 95% of consumers use the descriptor for the menu at Subway, followed by 91% for Panera Bread and 85% for Chipotle Mexican Grill. The next closest chain on this scale is Chick-fil-A, garnering 62% of consumers rating its food as “healthy,” which is still well above the average of 46% for all LSRs.

Because consumer definitions of health include not only fat grams and calorie counts but also upscale ideas about where food comes from and how it is sourced, don’t be surprised if demand builds for more restaurant concepts focused on health, like Native Foods Café, Snap Kitchen and Cava Mezze Grill.

Each of these brands differentiates in some way—a strictly vegan menu for Native Foods, a grab-and-go focus for Snap Kitchen, and a Mediterranean base menu for Cava Grill—but most adhere to organic and local ingredients whenever possible. While most of those brands like to personalize décor to the cities or neighborhoods to which they expand, they all tend to use recycled and reclaimed materials when they can, and most commit to recycling or composting everything from their food to their plateware.

Average checks at these kinds of establishments tend to run closer to casual-dining prices, but without gratuity. But large numbers of consumers report a willingness to pay a little more for foods perceived to have benefits like antioxidants, full servings of fruits or vegetables, or additional nutrients. Those perceptions often generate real loyalty for fast-casual brands, which is why we’ll only see this pivot toward a more healthful positioning increase.

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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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