The restaurant industry has been abuzz with the success of fast casual, and full-service restaurants have made their own attempts to get in on the action. Recently, a new crop of full-service restaurants is launching fast-casual spinoffs in the hopes of capturing the increasing number of consumers in search of high-quality, convenient fare at a lower price point.
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. is working on a fast-casual concept that would debut before the end of the company’s next fiscal year, July 2016, although few other details of the development have been released.
A quicker version of HuHot Mongolian Grill is scheduled to open today in Denver. At NuHu Mongolian Express, customers will be able to customize their own stir-fry bowls, their selections grilled to order faster and at a lower price point than at NuHu’s full-service sibling. This is HuHot’s second go at a limited-service concept; HuHot tested an express format of its Asian grill in 2010, but found customers who already knew the full-service brand were confused by the shared name. If NuHu is successful, the company will add the format to its franchise portfolio.
Tony’s Restaurant, an upscale, full-service restaurant, is opening a breakfast and lunch concept called Tony’s A.M. that will serve breakfast sandwiches, pastries, lunch sandwiches, soups, salads and more in a fast-casual format. Tony’s Executive Chef Vince Bommarito will oversee both kitchens, saying in The RiverFront Times, “It’s a little bit out of our wheelhouse, but it’ll be fun.”
Romano’s Macaroni Grill in October debuted its concept-within-a-concept Romano’s Kitchen Counter, a fast-casual lunch format. The counter is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. to give customers a faster, less expensive option than the brand’s traditional menu. Parent company Ignite Restaurant Group CEO Ray Blanchette told Nation’s Restaurant News that the new concept gives the brand a chance to catch Millennials and lunch business.
These brands are betting on the lure of fast casual that Technomic research in its Future of LSR: Fast-Food and Fast-Casual Restaurant Consumer Trend Report has shown to be effective in drawing occasions from Millennials and environmentally conscious and health-focused consumers.
These customers are looking for high-quality food and a full-service experience—through ambience, décor, “real” dishes and flatware—at a limited-service price. But they are also expecting technology, loyalty programs, social media engagement and sustainable practices, elements in which some full-service restaurants lag behind limited-service concepts.
To be successful, concepts that already have a reputation in the full-service segment must capitalize on what they do well that translates to fast casual as well as offer new elements to attract the fast-casual customer, all while managing brand perceptions. With more players entering the realm of fast casual, competition will only continue to increase, forcing fast-casual operators to differentiate from their competition and remain focused on their core customers.