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What Fast Casual Is and Why Some Companies Don't Measure Up

Published November 28, 2015

The fast casual restaurant segment stormed onto the dining scene in the mid to late 1990’s and has really never looked back. The timing was perfect as there was no middle ground between the QSR segment and fine dining, and many consumers were looking for different dining options that fit in with their increasingly mobile lifestyles and decreasing margin of time. But it wasn’t just the choice that resonated, it was the options that resonated. Deeper, richer flavors with textures and nuances that weren’t available at many QSR’s is what many guests were looking for, and the fast casual segment was there to greet them.
Over the last 20 years we’ve seen many different iterations of fast casual restaurants created to try and capture the guest with their approach to better food choices, served in a unique service model in a more contemporary enviornment. Many of those concepts have been very successful. 
Having spent the last 13 years of my career immersed in the fast casual segment I am amazed that many organizations call themselves fast casual when they are really in the casual dining segment. This not only creates great confusion for guests, but also a lack of focus for the restaurant concept. Trying to be something you’re not is a dangerous proposition, and can do serious damage to your brand.
The idea of fast casual is rooted in the idea that you can get a high quality meal with engaging service in an efficient manner. The beauty of the fast casual model is you order your food, get exactly what you want, and it’s ready for you as you pay for it. If the execution does not match that model, it is not fast casual. It may be casual. If you order, get a number, and sit down and wait for your meal it is casual dining. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But calling a casual dining concept fast casual is setting an unrealistic expectation for the guest, and creating undue stress on the employees working in the restaurant. 
Not every concept translates to the fast casual model, nor should they. The restaurant world needs all kinds of concepts, for all sorts of occasions, and whatever segment a restaurant finds itself in, it should be embraced in order to deliver the best possible experience to the guest.