Fast-Casual: The Restaurant Segment to Watch

Fast-casual restaurant concepts have been growing in units and customer traffic for the past decade – and it’s not slowing down anytime soon. The popular category falls between fast food and a casual dining experience, offering the perfect balance for today’s consumers: convenience, without sacrificing quality.

In fact, according to industry experts the fast-casual market has grown by 550 percent over the last 20 years, and was the only industry segment to maintain growth through the recession. While many sectors of the restaurant industry struggle for a variety of reasons (e.g. evolving consumer wants and needs, the boom of off-premise dining, and economic factors), the fast-casual segment continues to grow – fast.

So, what is it about fast-casual that appeals to today’s diners – and why should franchisees seek out concepts firmly positioned in this growing and dynamic segment? Read on.

The Menu

Yes, flavor profiles are important, but there are other factors at play that are shaping consumer decisions today and ultimately the success of franchises in the food space.

Today’s consumers are a bit of an enigma. They want health-forward options, but still crave old-school classics. They want an affordable price, but don’t want to sacrifice quality.

The fast-casual segment has cracked the code behind today’s diners.

For starters, fast-casuals offer health-forward options, while still having classic mainstays on the menu (because we all have cheat days). Restaurants in this space offer fresh ingredients and often display them for the customer to see, so they can watch their meal being prepared. This is widely preferred today over pre-assembled, previously frozen food made and packaged in the back, away from customers’ curious eyes.

Finally, fast-casuals are positioned in an affordable price-point, making them accessible and logical choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

These traits firmly position fast-casual menus as the leading choice among consumers – as evidenced by the segment’s booming growth.

A Better Customer Experience

One of the top trends driving the restaurant industry is diners’ desire for a good experience, quality, and of course, convenience, and fast-casuals check off all the boxes.

Need a quick pick-me-up for the morning commute? Done. Want to grab a lunch (packed with fresh ingredients) in under 10 minutes? Check. Craving a time to sit down with your kids for dinner over customized mac-n-cheese bowls? You can do that too.

By offering the convenience of quick ordering and eliminating mandatory sit-down service, restaurants are able to cater to consumers’ busy on-the-go lifestyles, while still offering that homey environment when needed.

The look-and-feel is more elevated than fast food, but not as formal as sit-down restaurants. The seating environment in a fast-casual is relaxed and laid back, offering a space for people to sit an enjoy their food and conversation without the time commitment of table-service dining.

Why Should an Entrepreneur Consider Fast-Casual

A franchise is a huge investment – both of time and money. Before taking the plunge, make sure you fully understand what’s positioned for sustained growth in the industry you’re planning to enter.

In restaurants, it’s undeniably the fast-casual space.

Fast-casual franchisors have streamlined operations and development processes, setting up franchisees for success from day one. It’s also important to look at how concepts evolve with time to adapt to new consumer trends. For example, Potbelly is rolling out its “Shop of the Future,” which will feature an updated layout to maximize space and efficiency and an updated design to appeal to today’s diners. It also stands to reduce development costs for franchisees.

Another factor to look for in the perfect fast-casual restaurant franchise is several dayparts – and off-premise – to maximize revenue opportunities. Since Potbelly rolled out breakfast, it has offered three dayparts, making it more attractive to franchisees. Also, check that the brand has a solid catering function and reliable delivery partners to drive off-premise revenue. These traits are fundamental to attaining loyal customers in today’s competitive landscape.

The fast-casual model is here to stay and fueling franchise growth in the restaurant industry. Over the past decade, consumer habits have evolved to require convenience while still prioritizing quality. Until fast-casual came into the mix, this was a void that desperately needed to be filled – and isn’t going anywhere. By delivering the perfect mix of quality, experience and convenience, fast-casual offers the most attractive franchise opportunity in the restaurant space today.

Peter Ortiz brings nearly 30 years of relevant executive-level experience to Potbelly, having previously managed franchise development for leading brands including Moe’s Southwest Grill, Carvel and Schlotzsky’s. In his role with Potbelly, he oversees all aspects of franchise development. An accomplished salesman, over the course of his career Ortiz has secured the sales of major multi-unit deals, helping brands expand into new regions and reach new consumers. Over the years, Ortiz’s efforts have netted sales of nearly 2,000+ franchises throughout the United States and Canada.

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