What your restaurant can learn from fast casual
Fast casual is hands down one of the fastest growing sectors in the food services industry. Since 1999 it has seen a 550% increase in sales. The vast majority of that growth is coming from other parts of the sector namely QSR (fast food) or from more traditional casual dining with table service (Applebee’s, Chili’s, et. al.).
With that in mind we are going to take a look at what sets fast casual apart from their competitors and how your restaurant can incorporate some of their innovations–even if you aren’t a fast casual concept.
What is Fast Casual?
This seems to be the million (or billion) dollar question. How exactly do you define fast casual and separate it from QSR and other casual dining concepts?
Here’s a quick run down of some of what defines a fast casual concept from its peers.
- No table service – Fast casual tends to be an order at the counter and then get your own food establishment. There is no dedicated wait staff.
- Take out – Fast casual also tends to have take-out service.
- No drive thru – While most fast casual concepts tend to have take-out they do not usually have a drive thru window.
- Mid-range average check – A typical meal for one person at a fast casual concept will tend to be in the $9-$13 range, higher than that of a typical QSR.
That gives us a pretty simple baseline for what defines fast casual. I know that this is pretty rough and not fool-proof but it at least gives us an idea of what we are looking at.
For the rest of the article we are going to focus on the unarguable king of fast casual–Chipotle. They may not have created the niche but they have come to define it. So let’s look at what Chipotle does and how you can use that in your own restaurant.
Chipotle has a s simple and austere esthetic. Their dining area feels light and open without feeling noisy. They have found the perfect balance between “nicer than McDonalds” and “much cheaper to decorate/build” than TGIFridays.
What you can do
Fast casual concepts tend to be more austere and simple but they still do a good job of feeling nicer and more inviting than a fast food restaurant. The biggest thing they do is make a nice atmosphere in the simplest, and often least expensive, way possible.
You can do the same thing for your restaurant. Focus your decor on being simple and functional while maintaining the core feel of your concept. Don’t go overboard with the most expensive chairs and table but instead choose functional ones that still look nice.
The same goes for the overall ambiance. Remember less is more. You don’t want to bash your patrons over the head with your concept…instead use small pieces and accents to remind them.
Chipotle prides itself on having friendly, happy staff. They are quick and efficient but will always answer any questions that a patron might have.
Chipotle is also super efficient at how they work. They have their staff scheduling down to a science. You almost never see a Chipotle worker just standing around with nothing to do. But at the same time when Chipotle is busy during a rush their line moves quickly and efficiently.
What you can do
Even if your concept offers table service you can still learn a lot from Chipotle and other fast casual concepts.
They pride themselves on the fact that their staff is a cut above those that work at a typical QSR. They are friendly, intelligent and empowered.
You can do the same with your staff and it starts with their training. You need to make sure that each employee knows what their role is and what is expected of them.
Each employee should know the menu inside and out and be able to answer any questions about it. They should also be trained to handle a variety of situations and problems.
Your restaurant should also be doing the best it can for scheduling people to work. Not only is it good for your bottom line to have the right amount of staff working but it is also good for your customers.
If a customer comes in and sees too many employees working with nothing to do they are going to assume that your restaurant is not well run. If you don’t have enough staff on hand and it leads to bad service…well I don’t have to tell you what happens then.
Food is the backbone of a restaurant and it is no different for a fast casual establishment. While QSRs focus on quick and efficient food that may or may not taste good fast casual is more focused on having delicious food at a still affordable price.
Again if we look at Chipotle we can see that they have their food down to a science. Their menu is deceptively simple. They have a handful of meat choices prepared in various ways (burritos, tacos, bowl, etc) and then a few topping choices.
These few choices lead to a robust menu that has hundreds of offerings that are still simple to prepare. This means that while the customer has literally hundreds of options they can still have their food in less than five minutes. Few if any concepts have done a better job of combining fast food and good food so seamlessly.
What you can do
Not every concept lends itself to simple items that can literally be put together as you walk down the line but that doesn’t mean that your concept can’t learn from what Chipotle has done.
Let’s look at some of what Chipotle does with their food and how you can apply it to your restaurant…no matter what the concept.
- Simple menu – Chipotle has built a simple menu that allows the same core foods to be used in different ways. Any restaurant can apply this to their concept. Look at the core foods that you use and look for ways to use them in other dishes – for example grilled chicken can be a sandwich, a pasta, a taco and an egg roll appetizer with no additional prep work to the chicken.
- Pre-prepped – Chipotle uses pre-prepared meats exclusively for their foods. If some or all of your dishes can use pre-cooked items without harming the final product (stewed or braised meats for example). Go ahead and use them.
- Condiments – Chipotle has just a few sauces/toppings that can be used to customize their items. Using things like house made aeolis and sauces to spice up pedestrian dishes can be a quick and easy way to make them seem more unique and taste better. For example which sounds better a grilled chopped chicken sandwich or a grilled chopped chicken pesto sandwich? And you can use the same pesto as a pasta sauce and a dipping sauce for an app…
This is where fast casual (and especially Chipotle) sets itself apart from more traditional fast food concepts.
Chipotle has gone out of its way to set itself apart as a different kind of restaurant. They focus on having antibiotic-free, hormone-free, non-gmo food. When they have had issues with products in the past they have not sold them instead compromising their standards.
They also focus on sustainability in their packaging and in their food. They have made a concerted effort to let people know what they stand for and then they have lived up to the standards they have set for themselves.
What you can do
Your restaurant should stand for something. That something doesn’t have to be what Chipotle stands for but it needs something. You need to look at what your restaurant does and what it can stand for then you need to let people know.
Here are some ideas for a “culture” that you can instill in your restaurant.
- Organic foods
- Healthful foods
- Locally sourced/farm to table
- Being a part of the community
- And many more
Your restaurant can stand for anything you want it to. If find something to stand for and then make sure that you take it seriously from the top down then people will respect you for that and they will come back.
So there you have it. Some simple lessons that you can learn from fast casual (and Chipotle) to help your restaurant…no matter what the concept.
Did you find this article helpful? Have you learned lessons from other restaurants that helped out your own? Please share in the comments.