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The Genre Bending Effects of Fast Casual

Published December 5, 2017

25 years into the fast casual restaurant segment that turned the restaurant industry upside down, we have learned a great deal. Not as only consumers, but as leaders in the industry. As more and more concepts have been developed and some concepts have disappeared (or slipped into irrelevance), the fast casual restaurant space continues to influence the industry in some surprising ways. Certainly, it’s affected the industry the way you would expect, launching some exciting concepts along the way that have patterned themselves after a service model that looks and feels like fast casual, but it’s also led to some genre bending in and out of the fast casual space.

We have new ways of describing our concepts; fine casual, QSR+, and limited service, just to name a few. What is interesting about this evolution is that more and more existing brands are looking to define themselves, or redefine themselves, in new ways without completely shedding the original DNA of the concept. Every brand wants to play in new spaces and I think that bodes well across the industry, but only if they get clear on who they DON’T want to be as much as they define who they DO want to be in their respective dining segment. In short, brands are growing up, and that’s a good thing. Even legacy QSR brands that have long been about value, are trying to figure out the silver bullet around how to attract the millennial consumer that wants more than a typical fast food experience that isn’t value-driven, but rather values-driven.

When fast casual burst onto the scene it had a dramatic impact on the QSR industry. In an Apple-like fashion, the fast casual segment tapped into something that the guest didn’t even know they wanted. In beautiful synchronicity, fast casual introduced a premium dining experience to customers, but made it accessible to the masses. The brands that made the biggest impact did it through authentic storytelling, and introduced terms that forever changed our understanding of food like traceability, sustainability, grass-fed, pasture raised, organic, and transparency.

While fast casual certainly impacted the QSR segment, the effects have been felt across the entire industry, including the casual and fine dining segments. As fast casual found its footing, everyone realized they needed to step up their game. The food had to be better. The execution had to be seamless. The service had to be top-notch. That effect has been a good thing for the entire industry.

Over the last 25 years there has been a revolution in how consumers spend their dining dollars, and across the restaurant industry brands continue to fight for the share of stomach in the communities in which they operate. They have had to respond swiftly and with transparency to capture those dining dollars. Our restaurant guests cares more about where their food comes from more than at any other time in history. Successful restaurant brand leaders know they have to constantly innovate and stay ahead of the curve of the increased expectations and demands that continue to be placed on them. There is a higher expectation for outstanding service, better food, and better people. We’ve cultivated this expectation through our brand promises and the brand narratives we create, and now we have to deliver on those expectations.

Staying ahead of the curve requires brands to constantly reinvent themselves and tell their story through a dynamic brand narrative, both internally and externally. It requires a concept to make changes and deal with the fallout of decisions that may not have gotten the desired results. It requires a high level of innovative thinking and the intestinal fortitude to invest ahead of the brand, in the food and the people, and make sure the story they are telling matches up with the decisions they are making. It requires hiring top talent and investing in their development.

As exciting as the last 25 years have been, the next 25 years looks to be an even more exciting time for restaurants, in all the various segments. Everyone will be watching with great interest to see how all the learnings that have been gained will impact the future of the restaurant industry, and who will rise to the top.