What Makes a Fast Casual Restaurant?

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How often have you heard the term fast casual restaurant thrown around? With the way the restaurant industry is moving nowadays, chances are you’ve heard it a lot. The fast casual dining industry is booming to the tune of at least $47 billion in annual sales and growing in the United States. But what exactly classifies a restaurant as fast casual? What’s the difference between a fast casual restaurant and a fast food restaurant? And what technology do these restaurants use to be successful? Stay with us and we’ll walk you through it.

What is a fast casual restaurant?

A fast casual restaurant is a restaurant that is nicer than a fast food restaurant, but isn’t a fine dining restaurant or a casual restaurant. It takes some cues from a fast food restaurant in terms of the speed of service and the lack of a wait staff, but usually does away with a lot of the key features of a fast food restaurant like a mascot, kids meals with toys, and kids play areas. That’s not to say every fast casual restaurant foregoes these things, but as a general rule, that’s a good way to differentiate. In general, fast casual restaurants aim to provide a more premium customer experience than fast food restaurants.

What are the differences between fast casual and fast food?

There are many differences between fast casual and fast food restaurants. While the lines can blur on occasion, in general here are some rules of thumb to help you distinguish between the two.

  1. The price point
  2. The ingredients
  3. The menu
  4. The drive thru
  5. The hours
  6. The mascot
  7. The kids play areas
  8. The alcohol, or lack thereof
  9. The quality of the interior dining space

1. The price point of fast casual restaurants is higher

Fast casual restaurants have an average check value of $10 to $12, whereas fast food joints charge between $5 and $7 for a basic meal. The higher price point usually reflects higher quality ingredients and a more premium overall customer experience than a fast food place.

2. Fast casual restaurants have higher quality ingredients

While fast food restaurants are often focused on keeping prices low by using the cheapest ingredients, fast casual restaurants aim for high quality ingredients as a key selling point. Customers aren’t going to a fast food burger chain for the health foods or organic ingredients. Rather, they go for the convenience and the low price. Someone who goes to Chipotle, on the other hand, cares more about health and high-quality ingredients. Chipotle even uses their fresh, natural ingredients as key selling points and differentiators in their advertising.

3. Fast casual restaurants often have a more adventurous menu

In a fast casual restaurant, you’re more likely to find a steak salad with organic greens than you are at a fast food restaurant. You may also see bolder, less kid-friendly flavors and more diverse ingredients if you’re out for a fast casual dining experience.

4. You’re less likely to find a drive thru at a fast casual restaurant

Fast casual restaurants in the past often did not have drive thrus. However, trends toward off prem dining, accelerated by the pandemic, have led more fast casual restaurants to add drive thrus to better serve changing customer preferences. If they don’t have a drive thru, you can expect an organized line inside the restaurant where you wait to order and then enjoy your food at a clean table in an inviting atmosphere.

5. A fast casual restaurant usually isn’t open late hours

If you want to run and grab a burger at two in the morning, don’t plan on going to a fast casual restaurant. A fast food restaurant’s main selling point is convenience, so it’s more likely they’ll be open late. Fast casuals, on the other hand, are all about quality and tend to cater to the 9-5 working class who frequent their restaurant during the daytime hours.

6. A mascot is hard to come by at a fast casual restaurant

Ronald McDonald, Colonel Sanders, and the King at Burger King. These are telltale signs that a restaurant is in the fast food category. You’re not likely to find those at a fast casual restaurant. They aim to focus on other things, and avoid self-promotion through a mascot.

7. You likely won’t find a play area at a fast casual restaurant

If you’re expecting a place for the kids to play at a fast casual restaurant, you’ll probably be disappointed. Fast food restaurants see children and families as one of their main target demographics, whereas fast casual restaurants primarily target working professionals and a generally more mature crowd. 

8. Adult beverages are more likely at a fast casual restaurant

You’re not likely to find any alcohol at a fast food restaurant. A fast casual one is more apt to have that option. Fast food restaurants are generally more catered to families. Not to mention, alcohol is much more expensive than a basic soft drink. Understandably, the expense of alcohol doesn’t jive well with the fast food model.

8. Fast casual restaurants have an upscaled atmosphere

If you’re taking someone out on a first date, you’re more likely to hit up Panera Bread than the golden arches. While fast food has its redeeming qualities, if customers are looking to dine in, they’re more likely to head to fast casual. Fast casual restaurants focus on providing a good dine-in experience.

What restaurants are considered fast casual?

Fast casual restaurants include establishments like:

  • Five Guys
  • Chipotle
  • Blaze Pizza 
  • Panera Bread 
  • Panda Express 

Is a fast casual restaurant a QSR restaurant?

No. A QSR or quick service restaurant refers to a fast food restaurant. Therefore, a fast casual restaurant does not classify as a QSR restaurant. That’s not to say a fast casual restaurant doesn’t strive to offer quick service. The best fast casual restaurants aim to take the best parts about fast food and level them up by having higher quality menu items and an inviting dine-in environment.

Is Chick-fil-A fast casual?

No. Chick-fil-A is not a fast casual restaurant. Rather, Chick-fil-A is a premium fast food restaurant, according to its Vice President of Product Strategy and Development, David Farmer. They aim to serve people who are choosy, yet don’t have a lot of time. Chick-fil-A does have a drive thru, but anyone who’s been through it knows it’s no ordinary operation. The Chick-fil-A drive thru runs like a well-oiled machine, where workers often come to you to take your order, rather than you having to wait in a long line. 

Is McDonald’s fast casual?

No. McDonald’s is not a fast casual restaurant. With its price point, hours, drive thru, mascot, and kids meals, it is very clearly a fast food restaurant. That said, it is the most valuable quick service restaurant (QSR) in the world, so it’s clear they’re doing something right. As fast casual restaurants have become more commonplace, McDonald’s has strived to up the level of its service, improving dine-in spaces and also adding additional premium menu items. This has helped them remain at the top of the “fast food chain.” 

What technology do fast casual restaurants use?

Just like a fast food restaurant, a fast casual restaurant needs good restaurant management software in order to be effective, organized, and efficient. Whether it’s software for employee health checks, solutions for reporting and analytics, or restaurant purchasing software, they need the right technology in order to thrive. If you own a fast casual restaurant and you need help in these areas, we’d love to give you a hand.

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