Fast but authentic is a trend that’s taken hold in the hospitality industry. Fast-casual dining that combines quality and convenience has changed the experiences being offered in restaurants, cafes, hotels and retail stores. But is the trend sustainable, and how will it evolve?
The incredible growth of fast-casual
Modern diners want food that’s prepared to order, using quality ingredients, yet is still quick and easy. This desire has driven incredible growth in the dining trend known as fast-casual.
Fast-casual chain restaurants are leading growth in the global foodservice industry. Market Insight company Technomic’s annual Top 250 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report in 2016 showed cumulative sales for the top 250 fast-casual chains were up 11.6 per cent.
Chain restaurants are not the only place the trend is having an impact. Many hotels recognise that traditional full-service restaurants don’t meet expectations of modern travellers, and are increasing revenues by switching to a more relaxed dining experience on property.
Fast-casual requires an investment in quality products and special attention to facets such as fitout and sustainability, but it also generates a higher spend per customer (than fast food) and more chances to provide unique dining experiences that offer enhanced value.
Lifestyle and technology changes drive dining choices
Disruptors like Airbnb and Uber have changed consumer perceptions of what constitutes a service, while apps, consumer rating sites and aggregators have shifted the balance of power to customers in terms of influence and choice.
Technology has fostered a belief that quality and value can be obtained quickly and with minimal cost, effort or inconvenience. Fast-casual is about having your cake and eating it too: fast food without the grease; regular fine dining without the expense; luxury and consumerism without the environmental/social downsides.
The fast-casual trend also represents a desire for a more engaged and authentic experience on the part of diners. Traditional dining concepts like draping napkins on people’s laps may be seen as old-fashioned, but in other ways, diners crave a return to tradition.
Rustic or wholesome meals, simple ingredient lists, and comfortable settings that encourage conversation feel more honest to a consumer that is wary of marketing promises—and can build a sense of trust that is more powerful than other indicators of value (such as price).
Casual does not mean apathetic
Fast-casual diners want delicious, on-demand food options but their purchasing decisions are driven by deeply held concerns.
According to Nielsen’s Global Ingredient and Out-of-Home Dining Trends Report, based on responses from more than 30,000 consumers across 63 countries, an increased focus on health and wellness is strongly affecting eating choices.
Food preferences and sensitivities have changed food choices, but technology has also created more informed consumers who are more interested in using food to control their health.
The report states: “Two-thirds of global respondents (68 per cent) strongly or somewhat agree they’re willing to pay more for foods and drinks that don’t contain undesirable ingredients.”
People want food that is healthful, natural, organic and sustainably sourced; but even more so, they want to avoid artificial flavours and colours, hormones and chemicals.
Modern diners are also more conscious of factors including supply chain management, workers rights and food waste. The Global Food and Drink Trends 2017 report by market research company Mintel reveals that many people now turn down special offers to avoid wasting food.
Is the influence of fast-casual going to last?
Can the fast-casual concept continue to effectively deliver both convenience and quality at scale? Will consumers continue to pay more for pared back service?
Contemporary diners are tech-savvy, time-poor, looking for value and concerned about how their purchasing decision defines them and their place in the world.
Fast-casual dining has evolved as a direct result of these concerns, which show no signs of disappearing.
There are enormous, emerging opportunities to customise fast-casual dining experiences. Nielsen’s research shows almost a third of people have restrictive diets, yet fewer than half (45 per cent) say their needs are being fully met by current food and beverage offerings.
How can hospitality best leverage fast casual?
Leveraging the fast-casual concept firstly means meeting people’s needs quickly, with minimal friction—by focusing on efficient processes, technologies and well-trained staff.
But this must be paired with an emphasis on quality and authenticity that responds to customer concerns about health and sustainability, which will also open up greater opportunities to build loyalty over time.
People will continue to rely on hospitality businesses to support their busy lifestyles and enable them to make healthy choices even as they indulge—and they will pay for that privilege if the offering represents true value.
About the Author
Jody McDonald is a creative communicator who works with businesses to plan and develop compelling content and websites, and writes about the digital economy, marketing trends and the future of work.