Most Consumers Wouldn’t Change a Thing About Fast Casual

Consumers like the variety offered on the menu at fast-casual restaurants, but that does not necessarily mean they’re looking to spice things up with a lot of change.

There are several ways fast-casual brands provide variety to consumers, either by having just a handful of items that can be customized however customers want or by offering lots of flavor combinations across many signature entrees. Either way, consumers tend to be more satisfied with that setup than with the variety they normally see at a fast-food restaurant or a coffeehouse.

According to the latest Consumer Brand Metrics report, 74% of consumers say they’re “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the variety of offerings at fast-casual brands, compared with 63% of consumers giving similar ratings for both fast-food and coffee-café restaurants.

With most consumers satisfied with what they can order at fast-casual chains—and with how they can order it and customize it—most of them don’t want those restaurants to “fix” something they don’t consider broken. Only 4% of consumers say fast-casual brands should decrease the number of items they sell. By contrast, 5% of consumers say coffee-café chains should slim down the menu and 8% say the same about fast-food restaurants.

This makes sense when consumers consider how most fast-casual restaurants are set up. Chipotle Mexican Grill essentially has two offerings, a burrito or a burrito bowl, but customers can get those items exactly the way they like with different meats, toppings and add-ons. Emerging fast-casual pizza chains could have more than a dozen signature varieties of a quick-fired pizza, in addition to their best-selling build-your-own pies. But the menu category generating the bulk of their sales is pizza. Not too many consumers would suggest that Chipotle cut back on burritos or Blaze Pizza cut back on pizzas.

New menu items and limited-time offers come on and off the menu much more in fast food, where the big chains are competing to steal each other’s traffic, so consumers are more likely to feel overloaded and could stand to see menus winnowed down a bit.

However, some consumers still want more culinary innovation, particularly younger consumers. Here, fast casual falls in between its limited-service competitors: 28% of consumers would like to see an increase in new menu items on fast-casual menus, while 26% say so for fast-food menus and 30% for coffee-café brands. In every case, consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 are far ahead of their older peers in pushing for more menu innovation.

Fast casual’s big opportunities for reloading menus come from its inherent competitive advantages of customization and serving alcohol.

Two in five consumers want more customizable options at fast-casual restaurants, compared with 32% saying this about fast-food brands and 30% about coffee-café brands. The other place where fast-casual significantly leads its limited-service peers is in the demand for adult beverages: 11% of consumers want more of those options at fast-casual chains, compared with 5% each for fast-food and coffee-café brands.

Of course, change is a constant in both life and business. But fast-casual leaders could focus menu innovation on a few key opportunities, while leaving much of their core menus untouched, and net big wins with consumers.

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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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