Waitress taking order in restaurant

Some chefs pay attention to the latest restaurant industry trends, and some chefs create the trends.

Take one of the latest casual dining trends as an example: fast fine dining. Not to be confused with fast casual, which refers to places like Chipotle or Five Guys, who distinguish themselves from fast food by offering high-quality ingredients and less of an assembly line atmosphere.

Although the economy brought down spending at higher-end restaurants over the last several years, the love for creative food has been growing at a rapid pace, enabling fast casual and fast fine restaurants to thrive.

According to The Washington Post, the market for fast casual restaurants has grown 550% since 1999, and was the only segment of the industry that continued to grow during the recession.

In Rhode Island, a French restaurant runs a gourmet hot dog truck, and another fine dining restaurant operates a gourmet taco stand on the side. Both versions of their restaurants are popular with the local foodies, and they’re able to serve, and please several different types of guests. Curious about how your restaurant might be able to capitalize on the fast casual or the fast fine dining trends that have dominated in previous years? Read on to learn more.

chef and owner discussing restaurant industry trends

Getting to know fast-casual restaurant dining trends

The mere mention of the term “fast food” is enough to know what to expect from a restaurant: the food is ordered at the counter, the delivery time is very fast, and the price is low. Of course, we also know that the meal is likely high in calories. While that’s exactly what some people are looking for, there’s something left to be desired for certain sections of the population as well.

Millennials aren’t just buying breakfast, lunch or dinner, they want their meal to be an “experience.”

Diners who are health-conscious, but still want speed, find themselves searching for options where they can pay a little more and wait a tad longer for food that is healthier. This is exactly what fast casual restaurants offer. Order at the counter, and only wait about five minutes longer than you would at a fast food joint. and viola—you have a meal at a quick price that is often composed of better ingredients than those you’ll find at traditional fast food joints and possibly even more delicious too. Now you’re beginning to understand the fast casual trend.

The main difference is the quality of the food. The raw materials used in fast-casual eateries like Chipotle and Panera are often obtained from trusted farms and co-operatives. The USP for this kind of place is the health factor, something that fast food doesn’t normally offer.

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So what are fast fine restaurants?

Fast fine restaurants fall somewhere between fast casual and fine dining. The main draw is offering patrons the taste of fine dining restaurant food for a lesser price and a quicker delivery time. Hey, not everyone has hours and hours (and bags and bags of money) to dedicate to a fine dining experience… but why should it be limited to that?

The idea is to do away with the negative aspects of fine dining like long reservations, high price and longer turnaround time. The chefs in these restaurants typically offer food that can be obtained fresh from local farmers or fishermen.

This also means the menu might change about several times per week, giving chefs the chance to experiment with new ideas and combinations  and giving customers the reason to come back again and again and again. When you’ll always find something new alongside, perhaps, a couple of staples that have become favorites, one-time guests can become regulars in a heartbeat.

For example, Larkburger is a chain based off of Vail, Colorado’s Larkspur Restaurant. Owner Thomas Salamunovich says, “I care as much about the ground beef hamburger as I do cooking foie gras or caviar.”

When it comes down to it, the heart of the difference between fast casual and fast fine dining is in ingredients and creativity.

 

“Though his burger stores do about one-fifth the business of his fine-dining restaurant, Salamunovich says opening a new quick-serve costs about $450,000, while a fine-dining restaurant can cost upward of $4 million. And the simplicity of quick-service concepts makes them easier to operate. Larkburger’s kitchens have an inventory of about 150 items; Larkspur has about 14,000,” reported NRN.

Busy Bar

Fresh to Order in Atlanta, Georgia is another example of a fast fine dining restaurant. This spot has the goal of providing their high-end food in ten minutes for around $10.

When it comes down to it, the heart of the difference between fast casual and fast fine dining is in ingredients and creativity. While fast-casual dining can include your typical fast food places like KFC and Pizza Hut, there’s much more to the picture these days. It’s not just low-quality ingredients dipped in a vat of boiling oil. Fast casual restaurants are starting to change what it means to eat quickly and on the go, often adding healthy to the mix. Fast fine restaurants, on the other hand, are typically smaller, more independent, and intent on utilizing high-quality ingredients than even fast casual restaurants are. Think of fine dining without all the time and money investments but with a similar take on the quality of food and sometimes even the dining experience, too. That’s what fast fine dining means.

What’s Driving the Fast Casual and Fast Food Fine Dining Trends?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, millennials are the major spenders in this area like they are in many other food industry sectors as well. As Inc. explains, “millennials have 2.3% of their meals at a restaurant, which [is estimated] as roughly one trip every other week. As this habit grows, more grocery stores are now offering prepared meals, or improving their existing options. More restaurants and fast-casual chains are offering delivery and making their to-go menu options more accessible.”

Fast fine dining is a natural extension of the fast casual, eating-on-the-go food choices that millennials, who are quickly surpassing baby boomers as the generation with the largest purchasing power, are demanding in droves. It’s also technological advances, like POS systems that seamlessly integrate online ordering into the kitchen’s workflow, that are enabling these trends to skyrocket. They’re not just buying breakfast, lunch or dinner, they want their meal to be an “experience,” and they’re eager to share it on social media. Get in on the action by giving them something to talk about.

How Fast-Casual Restaurant Intel Can Make Full-Service More Efficient

Marco Street grew up in the restaurant industry, and his family had long talked about opening up a restaurant focusing on quality fried chicken dishes.

“We really wanted to glorify the diversity that chicken can bring as an entree meal,” Street says. “It all started just as a family tasting recipes, going and eating chicken everywhere we could, testing with different cooking methods: fryers, oils, different ways to roast and cook over the fire.”

The original plan was to open a fast-casual restaurant in Dallas, but when a special location became available–the same location where Street’s father had opened his first restaurant in the 1960s–the family pivoted to make their concept fit a full-service model.

Owner Marco Street
Owner Marco Street

The full-service Street’s Fine Chicken opened in 2016, but it wasn’t long before the original plan also came to fruition. Shortly thereafter, the family also opened a fast-casual version.

While the restaurants have the same concept and founding principles of responsible sourcing and chicken raised humanely locally in Texas, executing day-to-day operations varies depending on location. To give us a peek into his process, Street dished about the logistical differences between his fast-casual and full-service restaurants, and how they can each help the other become more efficient and profitable.

Fast Casual Restaurant Menu

“Menu-wise, it was really important for us going from full-service to fast-casual that we were still able to serve the exact same quality of food, and maintain the same standards and the same elegance and everything that we do in the full-service format,” Street says.

But because fast-casual customers expect a faster pace and lower price points, some changes had to be made. For one, the full-service restaurant offers some non-chicken items and specials, plus a full bar to serve up craft cocktails.

“The most obvious difference is the full bar,” Street says. “In the fast-casual setting, it’s not as important, it’s not as big a part of your business because you don’t have as much opportunity for repeat drinks; it’s a faster-paced environment. Alcohol is just less of a component for counter service.”

“Digital signage is huge for fast-casual and it’s been very important to driving our business.” -Marco Street

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Value of Fast Casual

While menu items themselves are similar, some dishes have been reconfigured in the transition from full-service to fast-casual to provide more value and flexibility to customers.

“Obviously, there’s a price point battle you have when you’re trying to take a full-service version of your concept and turn it into a counter-service. There’s only so much people are going to be willing to pay and justify without having the experience you can get with full-service,” Street says. “For instance, some of our items, we don’t sell as meals; we sell à la carte so that the customer has more power in deciding how they’re going to spend their money.”

Some portions, like the salads, are scaled back to lower price points in the fast-casual restaurant, as well as decrease the amount of time it takes to whip up in the kitchen. The fried chicken, for example, is offered in meals at the full-service restaurant, and by-the-piece for fast-casual.

Buffalo chicken wings at the fast-casual Street's Fine Chicken
Buffalo chicken wings at the fast-casual Street’s Fine Chicken

“If they want to go just like they have it at the other store, they wind up paying more than you would at a normal counter-service restaurant, but it’s also very easy for the customer to come in and get exactly what they want for a price that they can afford,” Street says. “If you want to break the bank, you can break the bank, but it’s very easy to get very good value for the food that you’re getting.”

Interior Design

While many dishes are similar, they’re presented differently to customers in each restaurant. The fast-casual restaurant utilizes digital signage and digital menus to help each guest make an informed decision about what they’re ordering.

“In full-service, you have a server to walk you through every piece of the menu and they put the image in your mind’s eye through conversation there in that format,” Street says. “In fast-casual, there’s more pressure on the customer, especially in a high-volume store when there’s a line of people out the door. People want to order and get their food and move on, so photography is really big. It’s something that’s very important for our menu. … Digital signage is huge for fast-casual and it’s been very important to driving our business.”

Staffing

The hiring process for back-of-house employees ends up being similar for both restaurants, Street says, but the front-of-house hires are a different story. The fast-casual restaurant requires cashiers, food expediters, food runners, and employees manning the to-go orders, while the full-service restaurant needs servers, hosts and bartenders.

The full-service Street's Fine Chicken has a full bar. Photo Credit: Coeval Studio
The full-service Street’s Fine Chicken has a full bar. Photo Credit: Coeval Studio

“It’s a completely different animal in terms of managing a shift and managing that staff,” he says. “In the fast-casual, it’s a much younger crew in the front. It’s a much faster pace, so it requires a different set of skills. It’s more about efficiency, and 100 percent of the restaurant is on display. We have an open kitchen and the counter sits in front of it, so they have to be professional at all times. They need to be very, very efficient because we serve twice as many people in the same hour than we do in the full-service.”

Street says it has been less expensive to operate fast-casual staffing.

“We can do more business with fewer people and still give people the Street’s Fine Chicken experience. It’s really made us see what we’re made of, to have to work twice as hard, twice as fast for less money per customer,” he says. “It really puts the stress test on every aspect of the operation, so there’s been a lot of things that we’ve learned through opening the fast-casual that we’ve now been able to take over to full-service and improve efficiency over there. … We have now come full circle and turned around, helping the full-service version be even better.”

 

 

 

What do Celebrity Chefs Have to Say About Fast Casual

When quality fast-casual dining first took hold, experts debated its longevity, but diners always have the final say. Through their purchases, social media postings, and in the choices they continue to make, they have proclaimed fast-casual is here to stay.

The uptick in patronage of socially conscious cuisine also lends itself to this audience, who deeply care whether that burrito is stuffed with free-range or confined chicken. But the popularity of fast-casual remains tied to that which eludes us all: time. Chefs and restaurateurs who can source fine ingredients and concoct something delicious in a jiffy are the ones who remain busy.    

Donatella Arpaia
Donatella Arpaia

Celebrity chef and restaurateur at Prova Pizzabar, Donatella Arpaia is known for her expert palate judging dishes on TV’s Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef. She could have opened any restaurant anywhere, but chose to bring pizza to the people, opening Prova Pizzabar in Grand Central Station and shattering the myth that gourmet pizza means a long wait. Even though she designed her next-generation, traditional Neapolitan pizza using the highest water content, longest proofing process and authentic Italian ingredients, her pizza is readily available for quick service.

Arpaia wanted something more though, and designed a space to give diners the added option of hanging out in gorgeous digs. It’s the diner who makes the choice to either get in and out fast, or luxuriate over cocktails.

Arpaia explains why so many upscale dining chefs are including fast-casual restaurants in plans for expansion.

“Consistency, quality and commitment to your brand and to customer service holds true for fine dining and for fast-casual dining.” -Donatella Arpaia

 

 

“I felt there was a need for high quality artisanal pizza in a fast-paced environment and I was ready to embark on a new challenge,” says Arpaia, who is excited to open multiple locations across the country. “My team and I created a unique and exceptional product and it’s been a huge hit from day one, exceeding expectations because it is light and highly digestible, but, most importantly, delicious.”

Prova Pizzabar
Prova Pizzabar

The question of whether fast-casual restaurants will continue to prove successful among customers is on any chef’s mind before opening. Arpaia credits a more today’s more educated customer with ensuring a profitable fast-casual future.

“These customers are more demanding and have come to expect higher quality food in fast-casual environments, so this trend is going to continue and grow,” says Arpaia, who sees owning an upscale quick-service spot as making her more accessible and approachable – she loves to meet her fans in person over their mutual shared love of pizza. “Consistency, quality and commitment to your brand and to customer service holds true for fine dining and for fast-casual dining.”

Millennials are one major reason these restaurants are still trending.

“Millennials love fast-casual and they are a growing group within the hospitality world,” says Michael Schulson, CEO and founder of restaurant group Schulson Collective, who also recognizes how the shrinking lunch hour is driving people to fast-casual. “People are also eating out more than ever so they need more options, especially during the day when fewer people have extended time to dine out for lunch.”

Michael Schulson
Michael Schulson

The proof is in the sushi. Diners are embracing DK Sushi, Schulson’s new fast-casual restaurant inspired by his sushi bar and izakaya, Double Knot. DK Sushi is in the remodeled food hall at the University of Pennsylvania and one of 10 others nationwide in the Schulson Collective portfolio from the Philadelphia-based restaurateur. For the quick-service concept, chef Kevin Yanaga crafts à la carte items and signature sushi sets, and guests make selections from touch-screen kiosks. The result is an upscale sushi meal without the long wait or formal surroundings.

“The guests love DK Sushi because it’s a way for guests to experience my restaurant Double Knot, but on a smaller scale,” he says. “We use the same high quality fish but it is just less formal at DK Sushi.”

Why do so many great chefs with upscale dining seek the fast-casual solution? The answer is in brick-and-mortars.  

“Fast-casual allows us to build something more substantial, as you can open many restaurants with the same brand, while a free-standing restaurant can only have one, maybe two, locations in each city,” says Schulson, while acknowledging that longevity is dependent on making each a great experience for diners. “A fast-casual concept can have multiple locations within a city, but in the end, it is still the same, as a restaurant and its design, food, value, service and hospitality are important.”

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