It’s no secret that people have become increasingly interested in what kind of food they put into their bodies. Because fast-food restaurants tend to use more cost-effective ingredients, they often invite skepticism about the quality of the meals. This has left the American workforce wanting options for better, healthier foods that are still quick enough to get in a one-hour lunch break (or less, since the American lunch hour is dwindling).
The Rise of Fast Casual
Cue the fast-casual trend. Fast-casual is a combination of fast food and a service restaurant. Customers order from a menu option as they would at a fast-food place, then enjoy their food in a restaurant setting. Recently, professional chefs have started to explore this fast-casual restaurant concept, creating fine-dining versions of fast-food classics, and serving them up in a more fast-paced environment.
One of the most well-known fast-casual restaurants today is Chipotle, whose founder, Steve Ells, set the stage for fast-casual by offering up Mexican-style food using farm-sourced instead of factory-sourced ingredients. “I learned that great food and a great dining experience depends on sourcing food that is extraordinary—seasonal, local and artisanal,” Ells said in a 2011 interview with The Nature Conservancy. Today Chipotle is one of the most profitable restaurant chains in the country, ranking in the top 20 of Restaurant Business Insider’s Top 500.
Patience is a virtue that many people—especially the younger generations working in big-city environments—no longer have. Gone are the days of sit-down lunches and hour-long conversations with coworkers. Fast-casual provides a quick meal without breaking the bank—and, more important, without a long wait time.
Why Fast Casual Appeals to Professional Chefs
In 2013, just as the fast-casual restaurant concept was starting to gain traction, QSR Magazine did an interview with executive chef Dennis Friedman, owner of Newton’s Table in Bethesda, Maryland, on why he decided to leave the shake shack bandwagon and jump on the fast-casual train. Friedman told QSR, “Chefs with a fine-dining background provide credibility when they open a fast-casual establishment…. You have what may have cost $100 a person, and you can get a sample for $8 a person.”
QSR also reported, in 2016, that the “fast-casual” restaurant category had grown 550% since 1999.
That statistic alone is a big reason why chefs have been latching on to the fast-casual dining trend. It’s where the money is. Friedman joined the likes of professional chefs José Andrés and James Beard Award–winner Donald Link, both of whom have opened fast-casual spots centered on house-cured meats and fresh veggies—and both of whom have since expanded those restaurants to multiple locations.
In addition, A report by Zagat released in 2015 showed that consumers, in the younger demographics, want chefs to join the fast-casual world. According to the firm’s “2015 Fast-Casual Chains Survey,” 78 percent of consumers reported that they would like to see more chef-driven fast-casual eateries. Of the 78 percent, A full 83 percent were in their 20s, while 81 percent were in their 30s.
According to the report above, it’s safe to say that the trend won’t be going anywhere soon. According to Thomas Macrina, president of the ACF, although less than one in 10 fast-casual restaurants is chef-driven, that number is expected to double and more within 10 years. He says: “I see it popping up all over the place,” he also added that while the trend began in big cities, it will quickly filter to smaller markets.
Quality Matters … A Lot
It’s not just the price point and the time that are the key reasons for fast casual’s ascent. It’s also the quality. Consumer demands are rapidly becoming more and more concerned with the quality of food provided. Forbes reports that for consumers, it isn’t so much the healthy options that bring them to certain restaurants as the “high quality, fresh food.”
This is where fast-casual infiltrates the fast-food market. Chefs put an emphasis on local, sustainable ingredients that are not offered by fast-food restaurants. Fast-food restaurants tend to serve lower-quality ingredients to keep costs down, allowing them to charge just a dollar or two for, say, an order of chicken nuggets. The average cost of a meal at a fast-food restaurant is anywhere from $3 to $6—much less than the average cost of a fast-casual meal, which falls somewhere between $8 and $15. But chefs want to give diners the experience they’re looking for, and consumers are willing to pay more for higher-quality food. The fast-casual boom is a way for diners to have their cake and eat it too.
As of 2016, fast-casual had experienced two decades of double-digit growth. According to Restaurant Business Insider, more than half of the restaurant industry’s sales—nearly $500 billion—come from the top 500 full-service restaurant chains. Restaurant Business Insider’s 2016 report found that, for the first time, a fast-casual restaurant chain had made the top 10 of the prestigious Top 500: Panera Bread took the number 10 spot. A whopping 12% (more than ever) of the Top 500 was made up of fast-casual restaurants (such as Chipotle, Panda Express, and Qdoba).
Although chefs may have once dreamed of working in a fancy fine dining restaurant, the restaurant industry must grow with the people it’s serving. With the average worker only taking about 15 minutes to eat lunch, and roughly 80% of employees not even taking a regular lunch break, heading to an upscale restaurant to chow down is a thing of the past. People want to eat quickly, so chefs want to serve quickly, while still keeping high-quality ingredients paramount. The fast-casual dining trend is bigger now than ever, and with professional chefs on board, it is bound to only keep growing.
Be Wary Of The Hype Though
Umami Burger restaurateur Adam Fleischman says that although the fine-dining approach to fast-casual has flurried “probably within the past couple years,” he warns that not all Michelin-starred or James Beard Award-winning chefs can make the transition. “The tricky thing is that just because you’re a name chef, [it] doesn’t translate into being a fast-casual person,” he says. “Danny Meyer did it, but he wasn’t a chef. José Andrés is doing it now, which is a good sign of a fine-dining chef doing something completely new, rather than saying, ‘I’m José, and anything I open will be great.’ He’s putting a lot of thought into it and creating a whole new concept that he’s rolling out. It takes a lot of work.”
Finally, Becker, a former executive art several fine-dining establishments in New York City and Las Vegas says that a few years ago, it would have been a “sellout” for a top chef to get involved in fast-casual. He says, “I see a 180-degree change in how the American public is eating. People want quality—even on the go.” Based on our observations, the scenes haven’t pretty much changed even up till now.