New Year’s Resolutions for Fast Casual

I dine at fast-casual restaurants frequently—both big national chains and local upstarts—and I’m always eager to try new concepts in this dynamic segment of the restaurant industry. In my fast-casual travels in 2013, I had some great dining experiences, from feasting on impressively authentic-tasting Southern barbecue in the middle of the Midwest to creating hearty, fresh salads to my exact specifications (something I can’t generally do at fast-food or casual-dining concepts).

I’ve also had clunkers. There were the visits where I encountered absentminded or ambivalent service. Or hot food served cold. Or the frustrating experience of paying a set price for a build-your-own item when my paltry sum of ingredients left me feeling I had overpaid by at least a couple of bucks.

With both the good and the bad in mind, I’d like to offer a few New Year’s resolutions for fast-casual restaurants.

  1. Strive for better service. How important is good service? In a recent Technomic poll (PDF), 76% of respondents said good service is a very important influence on their decision to return to a restaurant; 97% labeled it at least a somewhat important influence. In fact, among nine factors listed, only food taste/quality and price in relation to quality were rated as bigger influences—and good service was nearly in lockstep with the price/quality factor. Do your counter associates offer a genuinely friendly greeting to guests, or do they roll off a standard line in a monotone without making eye contact? During slower periods, are staff members preoccupied with their smartphones, or are they proactively sweeping the floor? A few weeks ago I drove past a recently reopened spot and could see, from my car window, the lone counter associate slumped against the prep line, typing on his phone. I couldn’t help but wonder whether that was the first impression managers would want prospective customers to have of the place. On the other hand, on my first visit to another fast-casual concept last month, a staff member approached my wife and me while we were in line, asked the number of people in our party, and then reserved a table for us (after making sure we were OK with that table). The prompt and courteous service throughout our visit, in addition to the great food, will lead us back.
  2. Present a compelling value proposition. Technomic’s Mary Chapman recently looked at how consumers rate fast-casual and quick-service chains on a variety of attributes, including food quality, cleanliness, service and value. Her perhaps surprising finding, based on our Consumer Brand Metrics data? Consumers don’t rate fast-casual restaurants significantly higher than they rate quick-service concepts (except on cleanliness, where fast casual scores a decisive win). Thinking about their recent restaurant visits, 86% of consumers said the fast-casual restaurants they patronized offered good or very good value; 83% said the same about the quick-service restaurants they had visited. That’s not a huge difference, suggesting that fast-casual chains have room to better convey their message of freshly prepared, better-tasting food in a friendly atmosphere at a reasonable price. Another reason to emphasize value in 2014: Fast-food giants including McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s are zeroing in on new $1 burgers and other lower-priced offerings. That’s not a battlefield on which fast casual looks to play, but the difference between a $3 lunch and a $9 lunch is that much more apparent when these promotions ramp up—especially post-holidays, when consumers’ price sensitivity may be higher. Bundled-meal deals, family-/group-size offerings and combos can help fast-casual concepts present a strong value message without resorting to discounting. It’s worth remembering, too, the ways in which enhanced convenience can add value to the restaurant experience; look for technology that enables this (online ordering and express pickup lines, mobile payment) to be a major focus for limited-service restaurants in 2014.
  3. Let guests know what you stand for, and get involved locally. Panera Bread was touting its use of antibiotic-free chicken before a lot of people understood or cared what that meant. Chipotle Mexican Grill has built (and continues to build) its brand around its Food With Integrity commitment. Jason’s Deli last year began a partnership with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center through which 10 cents of every bottled water sold at Jason’s Deli stores goes directly to cancer research. Consumers want to know what matters to a restaurant concept beyond the bottom line. So whether it’s a commitment to certain sourcing or food-preparation practices or to supporting specific causes or groups, restaurants looking to drive guest loyalty should be able to convey what they’re passionate about. Technomic’s 10 Trends for 2014 noted, too, that “consciously or unconsciously, (consumers) will gravitate to concepts that share their worldview.” On a similar if less political note, local involvement can be a powerful generator of goodwill. I love it when I see large fast-casual chains sponsoring local 5K races and softball teams. That kind of involvement signals to me and, I would venture, to consumers broadly, that a particular concept doesn’t just “live” in the community; it values being an engaged member of the community. This can go a long way in making a big brand seem more local, too.

Those are my humble suggestions, culled from an encouraging year’s worth of fast-casual dining. I already have several up-and-coming concepts on my list to hit in 2014, and I look forward to another exciting year for the segment. Happy New Year to all.

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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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