Trends In The Fast Casual Restaurant Industry Shaping The Market

The times, they are a’changin’. Along with the times come eating habits, changes in food preparation, ingredients, and presentation, as well as restaurants Americans love. Add TV cooking shows, and you have a recipe for excitement and anticipation.

Trending now in the food industry is the fast-casual restaurant. These eateries prepare food fast, but it’s not fast food. The menu choices are more imaginative. The ingredients tend to be locally sourced. It’s by far healthier eating than fast food.

For those unfamiliar with fast-casual dining, there are several to choose from. In the South, you’ll see Zaxby’s. Begun near a college campus, the stores spread along the East Coast. They cook chicken dozens of ways, with salads, sides, and some fantastic chocolate chip cookies.

Everyone is familiar with Chipotle, the masters of the burrito. You all know Panera Bread with its freshly baked bread, soup, sandwiches, and desserts. Boston Market has a significant presence on the East Coast but can be found nationwide with its rotisserie chicken, pot pies, and hot vegetable plates. So that’s what fast-casual is; what are the trends in fast-casual?

1. Digital Is King

In the first months of the pandemic, Americans weren’t allowed to leave their homes. We quickly discovered how to order our groceries, medicines, household necessities, and everything else online. That included food we were too anxious to cook.

Restaurants went digital like lightning. They found a delivery staff, made mobile apps, bought to-go boxes and bags, and were off to the races. These restaurants were found in Google’s top ten rankings, pictured menus, and most importantly, their reviews were right with the menus and logo.

Fast-casual restaurants with a solid social media presence, online reviews, specials, and discounts for online purchases are beginning to outlive their fast-food cousins.

2. Pick-Up And Delivery Is Bigger Than Ever

Pick-up and delivery were a convenience before the pandemic. In those first months, it was a necessity. It’s just as big as ever, and we don’t think delivery will ever stop.

While some restaurants, even sit-down restaurants, quickly gathered a delivery staff, third-party delivery systems like Uber Eats and DoorDash cleaned up. They, too, were a convenience before the pandemic; afterward, and to this day, they remain vital to the delivery of food.

3. Have Variety, Will Travel

Americans are tired of the same-old, same-old. They want Mediterranean food, Middle Eastern falafel, Tex-Mex, French, and English, along with new and imaginative ways of cooking the same-old, same-old. As a result, healthy Mediterranean and Keto diets, smoothies, and nutritional shakes are trending now.

Fast-casual places offering healthy salads, soups, and sandwiches (some on lettuce leaves for an un-wich a la Jimmy John’s and others,) healthy and imaginative smoothies, and shakes for on-the-go are trending now. Many Americans work between the office and home, so grabbing health and difference is a happy thing.

4. Only The Best Ingredients Will Do

Today’s diners are savvier than in days gone by. Today, they want the freshest foods grown nearby, with very few canned or boxed ingredients. Diners want transparency. They want trust. After all, it’s their health they’re talking about.

Fast-casual restaurants are answering this call with joy. Locally sourced foods are easier on their budgets; they walk out the door in satisfied customers’ tummies and are there when restaurateurs call the sources. No more waiting on a warehouse shipment; the growers are there in no time.

All this is easier on the budget. There’s little reason to arrange storage in the kitchen or fridge. It’s quicker to process, so dishes are more quickly cooked and plated. This means more satisfied diners returning time after time, which also benefits the budget.

5. It’s About the Location

The parking lots of shuttered stores are prime real estate for food trucks. So whether your choice is old-fashioned Sunday dinner take-out, barbecue, seafood, Middle Eastern, steak, burgers, tacos, pizza, desserts, smoothies, shakes, or lobster, there’s a food truck with your name on it.

Some food trucks use parking lots for a more or less permanent site, while others travel to different parts of a city for a limited time. Either way, many, if not all, food trucks prepare their foods using locally sourced ingredients, cooked in imaginative ways. As a result, they’re reasonably priced, and it doesn’t look like the trend will end anytime soon, thankfully.

Those shuttered stores make great food halls. The Millennial generation seeks out and is loyal to fast-casual restaurants with good food, reasonable prices, and good friends. They sit at long or large round tables with samples of dozens of foods on the tables and share the experience with all kinds of people, friends or otherwise.

While the pandemic closed down many companies, their former properties have been snatched up by fast-casual food companies catering to the sharing culture. Now that restaurants have been open for a while, they’re seating diners with lots of space between them. Food halls are no different.

6. Adding Revenue Streams

The days of sitting down to a meal in a restaurant are gone. Instead, today’s fast-casual eateries offer meal kits, retail products, or classes in various subjects. If you’ve ever driven from Florida to Pennsylvania, you’ll understand what we’re discussing. You’ve probably stopped for food at a Cracker Barrel restaurant and bought a retail product (maybe even one of their beautiful rocking chairs.)

7. It’s About The People

While many fast-casual eateries use the latest technology to streamline their kitchens and other aspects of food service, the people make it all happen. The wage hike to $15 an hour in many restaurants has brought a new level of food service to diners. People stay in food service longer, delivering better service, and restaurants see an uptick in profits. This, perhaps, is the most enduring of fast-casual dining trends.