Great Minds Think Differently About Fast-Casual Restaurants

The National Restaurant Association Fast Casual Trends & Directions Conference on October 3 gathered more than 100 industry leaders in Dallas to share ideas about what is seemingly a straightforward topic: the status and future of fast casual. It may have been a group seeking a common goal, but the ideas were diverse and the discussions often heated.

Does Drive-Thru = Fast and Cheap?

Take the role of drive-thru, for instance. Panera Bread and McAlister’s Deli have drive-thru windows in some of their units, and few people would say their executives don’t know what they are doing. However, there are a great number of fast-casual executives who believe that a drive-thru runs counter to what “fast casual” is all about, and that they would simply blur the brand and the segment. The other side believes that consumers don’t differentiate “fast food” and “fast casual” the way we do, so it doesn’t matter. Don Fox, CEO of Firehouse Subs, came down firmly in the middle, noting that if your brand is already known for high-quality food, service and experience, a drive-thru shouldn’t hurt, but that if your brand is new, or new to a market, that a drive-thru says something your brand may not. So the discussion continues.

High Tech, Low Touch?

Another topic that generated diverse opinions was the role of technology in the restaurant. Yes, it’s cool and trendy, and the Millennial kids seem to like it. But does it remove an element of interaction that makes up a valuable part of the fast-casual experience? David Prows, executive chef at fresh-and-healthy upstart Blue Lemon, says his brand uses technology to enhance the service experience. Blue Lemon customers receive a pager before they find a table—not to be notified when their order is ready, but to tell the server electronically which table to deliver the order to. Customers get their orders more quickly, and they don’t have to leave the table.

To Serve or Not To Serve?

Interesting conversations revolved around adult beverages as well. On one hand, beer and wine are high-margin products, and consumers’ relatively short visits would limit an operators’ liability. Who wouldn’t want to have a beer with their better burger, or a margarita with their fresh-Mexican burrito? But, the others argued, how many drinks could you sell? Most of our traffic comes in at lunch, and dinner visits are too brief to sell a second drink. And how does a customer who wants that second drink get it? Wait in line again? Flag down a server who is of age, who the chain has had to hire for just this purpose? Rebuild the counter area to add a “seconds only” lane?

The list of arguments goes on: Are we responsible for serving healthy food? Do we have to stay open late to compete against both quick-service and casual-dining competitors? Are those competitors going to be able to steal business by copying our strengths in innovative fare, comfortable atmosphere and top-notch service?

What we do agree on is that the fast-casual segment will continue to evolve, and its leaders will continue to test the limits and stretch its boundaries.

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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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