New Full-Service Spinoffs Heat Up Competition in Fast Casual

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.

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Sarah Janssen

Sarah Janssen is an Assistant Editor at Technomic Inc. in Chicago. She is responsible for writing and editing content for the company’s newsletters, blog and other publications. Prior to joining Technomic, she held various roles reporting and editing for daily and weekly newspapers.

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