5 Things New Fast Casual Concepts are Getting Right

Fast casual concepts are killing it again, posting 12.8% growth in 2014, almost doubling the next segment in the restaurant industry. Blame it on the food, blame it on Millennials, or blame it on QSR’s failure to adapt; those numbers don’t lie. Fast casual concepts are delivering the cuisine that fast food hasn’t (or can’t), and without the wait or the price point of their casual dining contemporaries. However, many of these concepts new to the scene are doing things even better than the Qdobas and Five Guys out there, effectively entrenching their brands in local markets to position their launch onto national palates.

Bryn + Dane’s - one of Philadelphia’s rising stars - recently opened a new location in Plymouth Meeting, PA.

The new fast casual is the kid who flipped burgers in high school, received a culinary pedigree waiting tables in college (with a minor in social media) and attends anti-GMO rallies after shopping at the farmer’s market. Blend it all nicely and serve it fresh with free WiFi and furniture that inspires chillin’ in a re-purposed veneer, and you have the formula that’s got Millennials lining up with with thousands of digital friends in their pockets, effectively helping many of these concepts blow up overnight.

As fast casual keeps trending, the coolest of the cool are doing things a little differently than their mom and dad’s brands, though even those are finally beginning to rub the mass-produced sleep from their eyes to take notes from these tragically hip mavericks who are able to effortlessly strike a chord with their contemporaries where the McJuggernauts have struck out. Here are five things we see some of our favorite new concepts doing that are keeping them on top of the restaurant buzzword list in both the established and burgeoning “foodie” districts of the nation:

1. Fresh & Local Made from Scratch

Our national health consciousness has continued to evolve as younger generations are being raised to understand what constitutes healthy and what doesn’t. With countless articles and reports on GMOs, the true-or-not dangers of high fructose corn syrup and what constitutes “meat” in dollar menu items, Millennials and their alphabet generation siblings are bypassing the brands whose red lamp items have a seven year shelf life in favor of fresh food prepared on the spot.

Bryn + Dane’s promotes farm-to-table “Local/Lo Cal” healthy fast food.

Concepts who’ve effectively embraced the fresh & local trend are also allowing the availability of local and seasonal ingredients to influence their menus. Instead of just offering LTOs, menu variations also come from what’s in season, giving them the same kind of culinary street cred as the big boys downtown with valet parking. Only they’re doing it with far less pretension and far less overhead. And though their prices may seem steep compared to the QSRs down the street, Millennials are willing to pay more for fresh and healthy.

2. Succinct Menus Inviting Customization

Trying to have something for everyone is a formula for failure. With too much choice comes a longer order process, slower throughput and longer ticket times as cooks have more to manage in a crunch. This can also lead to a larger investment in equipment as more variety means more grill space, more burners and more space in the walk-in as well. This crisis of food identity can lead to a crisis of finances as poorly selling items or ingredients end up in the dumpster and chalked up as a loss on the weekly inventory report.

More successful concepts have cohesive menus with a central theme featuring fewer signature dishes centered around a selection of ingredients that all play nicely together. This ensures good use of all items in the store with less spoilage and less overhead while giving guests a chance to modify dishes to suit their tastes, or to play “guest chef” with the pallet provided. These concepts understand that their market wants it their way, and being able to customize dishes to the whims of the guest effectively gives them a better variety – albeit in a smaller scope – then the guys down the road trying to do too much.

Dharma Sushi & Thai drops Asian-fusion and craft beer with late hours in a cocktail-friendly district of downtown Boise, Idaho.

3. Two Big Feet in the Digital Sandbox

If there’s one thing that new concepts embrace, it’s tableside food porn. Every time a smartphone camera shutter clicks, it’s a safe bet there’s been at least one more digital step taken to raise awareness for their brand, leading to more people coming through the doors.

Concepts with a large social media presence are putting their guests to task marketing for them, and those guests are more than happy to do just that. With over 30% of Americans utilizing their phones as part of their dining experience, bragging rights no longer have to come from interactions with chefs and owners or their food. Instagram has become a virtual wonderland of culinary delights, and smart concepts know that guests who are posting about their concept on their Facebook page or Twitter feed are instantly announcing their brand to hundreds of potential consumers with every keystroke.

Chefs and owners are still engaging the individual nonetheless, but they’re not using social media solely to promote themselves, but to solve business challenges as well. Many restaurant concepts leverage the likes of Facebook and Twitter to announce everything from restaurant promotions and menu updates to news stories, charity sponsorships or employee accomplishments. However, smart concepts are also using social media to help them identify and fix problems with their business. Having a direct line to consumers who are voicing their concerns allows these concepts to immediately adjust their operations as needed while also giving them a chance to win back any dissatisfied guests. The key is timely and consistent engagement, and those who monitor and address complaints (in-between posting pictures of the daily specials or LTOs) are getting more traction with their local markets.

4. Millennial Techno-Bait

One of the biggest lures new concepts dangle at Millennials is the use of technology to appeal to their digitally-marinated lifestyles. Free WiFi is great, but these concepts have taken it a step further by adopting self-order solutions both in the store and over the Web. Industry studies show that more of those who grew up with the Internet in their pocket prefer a user interface to a person and like to take a DIY approach to customer service. Give Millennials an app or a user interface and they’ll prefer the personalized experience that they can create, especially when it deals with their inner foodie.

Sushi-2-Go on the edge of campus at the University of Florida mixes a retro interior with late night delivery to help cure late-night cram cravings.

Self-order also brings a great deal of value to the concept by putting guests to task as their own cashiers, letting the store upsell more effectively through the interface than at the counter while increasing throughput. And self-order on mobile devices lets the guest grab food on the go from their favorite hotspots, increasing the overall reach of a concept to give them a better share of the pie. Utilizing self-order also enables concepts to get better value out of labor, especially in the face of inevitable labor increases. By utilizing customers as cashiers, concepts can focus more on hiring and retaining employees with better production skills instead of having to pay someone to translate a guest’s order into a terminal. Plus, with very little configuration, kiosks can do things like filter items based on food allergies or diet, which comes in handy for those who have dietary restrictions either by choice or genetics.

5. Focus on Restaurant Stuff, not Software

Both QSR and fast casual giants have been flocking to self-order as a way to help their brands stay relevant to the purchasing powerhouse Millennials as a whole represent, as those who have been quick to adopt disruptive technology in the past have generally fared better than those who believed themselves too big to fail (read: too big to adapt). However, in their moments of panic, some of these giants are blowing a big chunk of dough to develop custom solutions where existing ones have been figuring out what works (and what doesn’t) for over a decade. Panera divulged last year that their custom solution was developed to the tune of $42 million dollars, and Hardee’s has recently partnered with Microsoft to follow suit. Not to knock the guys in Seattle, but creating software for office applications is a far cry from foodservice, which is why most POS companies don’t offer their own version of Word.

These smaller, savvier and operationally more flexible concepts chose a smarter path, putting them well ahead of the stock ticker brands to carve out their share of the fast casual pie. By utilizing existing leaders in foodservice technology who’ve already figured out how to make self-order work (and can integrate it with everything else in their arsenal), these upstarts can focus on delivering a great experience to their guests instead of developing technology, which is why they left their corporate ties hanging from their beat-up Fenders in the first place.


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