What to watch for when making the fast-casual transition

The restaurant industry is one of trends. In the 1950s and '60s, diners were all the rage, while in the '70s and '80s, bars boomed.

In more recent years, fast-casual eateries have exploded onto the scene, with rural and city dwellers not only having more than a handful of potential locations to taste test, but several within walking distance.

But in restaurateurs' haste to give their clientele the food and service they want - all in a timely fashion - it's important not to neglect certain core components of restaurant management, like point of sale, from getting the fast-casual treatment as well. Given they have plenty of other options to choose from, failure to do so can result in fewer visits and an uptick in unsatisfied customers.

"7 of the 10 fastest-growing restaurants since 2011 are fast casual."

Impressive numbers provide context to the upsurge in fast-casual development and dining. Indeed, according to data compiled by the National Restaurant Association, fast-casual sales have risen on an annual basis every year since 2011. And of the 10 fastest-growing chain restaurants in America, seven are fast casual, led by establishments such as Twin Peaks, Shake Shack and The Habit Burger Grill.

 Fast Casual

Fast-casual choices run the gamut
Frequently, when a certain type of restaurant increases in prevalence, the offerings tend to be the same. But what the fast-casual segment has going for it is its eclectic variety, meaning there's a fairly even distribution in the dishes that establishments specialize. For instance, of the $47 billion in fast casual sales in 2016, approximately 19 percent came from Mexican food eateries, 19 percent from bakeries/cafes, 18 percent from sandwich shops, 12 percent chicken and poultry locations and 10 percent burger joints, according to the National Restaurant Association's figures.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president for industry research firm Technomic, told The Washington Post what he believes spawned the segment's growth, which experts say is fairly recent, dating back to the 1990s.

"What we saw early on with fast casual was mainly an emphasis on offering a better product," Tristano explained. "It was the price point, but also the food quality, the ingredients, the experience."

Must be 'all-in' for fast-casual transition to work
Fast-casual dining can't be done on a piecemeal basis - where one aspect of it fits the definition, but the rest falls under a different distinction. This is part of the reason why some who have made the transition are changing aspects of their restaurants that they they didn't consider initially. Case in point is the Austin, Texas-based chain Verts Mediterranean Grill. Short for "VertsKepap," the business decided a name change was in order after determining a fast-casual inspired menu and services would help stimulate sales.

Michael Heyne, the chain's co-founder, told QSR Magazine the company decided to Noon Mediterranean because keeping the original name, one that's hard to pronounce, seemed out of step or incongruent with its renewed emphasis on simplicity.

"When we started to explore that, we knew we needed to change the name, no matter how hard it is in the short-term," Heyne said. "We found the [new] name is really incredible for us because it means lunch - it's witty, symmetric, short, looks really cool, and means bread in Farsi."

The company even went so far as to change its look, rearranging the layout of tables and chairs as well as the chain's primary colors. Heyne told the publication Verts Mediterranean used lots of red, which he felt was too passe. The new brand combines emerald green and yellow, which he says is inventive and distinguishes the company from its competitors. 

May be better to optimize than expand
As restaurateurs seek to serve more of the fast-casual segment by increasing their footprint - in the mold of Subway or Applebees - experts warn that expanding can wind up backfiring. Jonathan Maze, senior financial editor at the Nation's Restaurant News, noted in a 2017 column that a common miscalculation by fast-casual chains is overdevelopment, which he says can take away from the sales traffic of existing locations.

  Fast Casual Restaurants are expanding aggressively in the US.

Fast Casual Restaurants are expanding aggressively in the US.

A better move may be to streamline some of the services that are already in place, in effect making the customer satisfaction experience better than ever.

More than anything else, foodies prioritize quality menu selections, ideally the kind that are made from local ingredients. But they also want speed; the sector's success has largely disproven the notion that good food takes awhile to reach "order's up" status. For this reason, choosing a Point of Sale and integrated payments solution that encourages efficient order entry and payment processing is crucial to the success of a fast casual restaurant. 

Learn more about fast casual payments options!


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