How “Fast Casual” Is Changing How We Eat Fast Food

Fast food: The phrase brings to mind images of burgers, fries and drive-thru service. It’s hard to imagine a time when consumers couldn’t get a hot meal in seconds, pay for it in pocket change and feel full and satisfied. In 60 years, fast food has become as much a part of the American culture as baseball and apple pie. In fact, Gallup research has found 8 in 10 Americans eat at a fast food restaurant at least monthly, and 57 percent of young adults report eating it at least weekly.

However, the traditional fast food most people grew up with is evolving — due in large part to young people who are more conscious of what they’re eating and who want food that is healthier, less processed and more sustainable. A new type of restaurant, known as fast casual, has emerged to meet this demand and appears to be making a significant impact on the quick-service food industry.



What exactly is a fast casual restaurant?

Fast casual restaurants straddle the line between traditional, counter-service fast-food restaurants and casual dining establishments with table service. They have many of the elements that make fast food appealing, including immediate service, take-out or eat-in options and low prices, but fast casual eating establishments have other features that set them apart.

Interior designs often show a sense of sustainability and community, by using reclaimed wood and repurposed materials, displaying work by local artists and including communal dining tables.

The trend at fast casual restaurants is for transparency in ingredients, a desire to be more socially responsible and a commitment to source local food (including, in some places, locally produced beer and wine) that is often organic, grass-fed and antibiotic- and hormone-free.

The Concept Gains Popularity

The fast casual concept isn’t new. Chains like Panera Bread and Au Bon Pain have been in business since the 1980s, and Chipotle Mexican Grill opened the first of its 1,900 restaurants in 1993. In recent years, the concept has gained momentum, with chains and local eateries appealing to those seeking alternatives to traditional fast food.

According to Euromonitor, the fast casual market has grown by 550 percent since 1999, with an estimated $21 billion spent in 2014. While that’s a small amount of the more than $190 billion in annual revenue from U.S. fast food restaurants overall, the numbers are predicted to grow. Nielsen has found that about one-third of consumers will pay more for healthier ingredients, and the National Restaurant Association reports 76 percent of adults will return to a restaurant that offers healthier options.

LYFE Kitchen is a growing fast casual chain whose founders include two former McDonald’s executives. An acronym for Love Your Food Everyday, LYFE stresses there is something for every taste and type of diet on its menu, with minimally processed offerings and flavors enhanced by seasonal herbs and produce. Although LYFE Kitchen doesn’t market itself as “healthy,” its menu items contain fewer than 600 calories and 1,000 milligrams of sodium.

Toronto-based Freshii offers a similar concept, with a diverse, customizable menu that features wraps, salads, quinoa bowls and fresh juices and smoothies. One of the best-selling items on Freshii’s menu is the Pangoa Bowl — a colorful mix of brown rice or quinoa with kale, avocado, black beans, aged cheddar, corn, cherry tomatoes, cilantro, lime and barbecue sauce, which can be “energized” with a choice of protein.

Sweetgreen, a fast casual chain with more than 30 restaurants, focuses on creative and seasonal salads made with locally sourced ingredients. Some of the company’s core values — to think sustainably, keep it real and make an impact — demonstrate the approach and philosophy of many fast casual restaurants.

But not all establishments promise a low-calorie or plant-based menu. New York City-based Shake Shack offers antibiotic-, hormone- and GMO-free burgers, hot dogs and shakes.

What’s in Store for Fast Food?

Consumers’ changing tastes and the growing fast casual sector are influencing many of the original fast-food giants.

Pizza Hut is establishing new brand standards and has removed trans fat, artificial flavors and colors and monosodium glutamate from its products. Pizza Hut also is working to reduce sodium in many recipes. The challenge is to simplify ingredients while maintaining the flavors that our customers love and expect.

At Taco Bell, in addition to simplifying ingredients, the chain has developed an entire menu of vegetarian options and was the first quick-service restaurant to be certified by the American Vegetarian Association. Taco Bell offers 13 AVA-certified menu items and 35 AVA-certified ingredients — 26 of which are vegan. McDonald’s, the largest fast food chain in the U.S. in terms of sales, also is listening to customers. In addition to reducing sodium and switching to healthier ingredients in some products, McDonald’s is targeting the health of a major audience — children — by adding whole-fruit clementines and yogurt to Happy Meals. In addition, McDonald’s has announced plans to provide milk produced without the artificial growth hormone rBST and to purchase chickens raised without antibiotics by 2017. The company also will transition to sourcing only cage-free eggs.

Quick-service restaurants are an important part of the American dining experience and lifestyle. As consumer preferences for traditional fast food and newer fast casual restaurants continue to evolve, the industry is working to keep pace with health and dining trends, taking important steps to meet demand. Any change toward healthier ingredientshas a major impact on public health.

List of the best restaurants chains in america, based on customer satisfaction.

Americans love chain restaurants. But personal preferences aside, which chains get the most love?

Restaurant Business, a food-service industry expert and media outlet, have tried to find out and list a definitive ranking of the best chain restaurants in America. Using proprietary data collected by Restaurant Business, the complete list show both financial performance rank and value rank, but we have chose to one true parameter that customers care most about: The Customer Satisfaction.

The Top 20 Restaurant Chains in USA, based on customer satisfaction.

20. Buffalo Wild Wings

Customer satisfaction rank: 20

Known for its signature wings and 16 specialty sauces, Buffalo Wild Wings is the destination for sports fans, beer lovers, and wing aficionados.

19. O’Charley’s

Customer satisfaction rank: 19

With its 212 locations, the midsize chain gives customers an experience full of Southern hospitality, fresh baked pies, and generous portions that appeal to the value-conscious customer.

18. Outback Steakhouse

Customer satisfaction rank: 18

The Australian-themed steakhouse is a cult favorite whose newest menu item —  the french-fry-topped, loaded Bloomin’ Onion. There are 755 US locations.

17. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro

Customer satisfaction rank: 17

Known for its handmade dim sum and iconic lettuce wraps. Still running strong with 214 locations nationwide, P.F. Chang’s prides itself on always using fresh ingredients and serving every dish made-to-order.

16. BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse

Customer satisfaction rank: 16

Giving a Southern California twist on the traditional Chicago deep-dish pizza, The chain now operates six of its own breweries, along with its 171 restaurants.

15. Red Lobster

Customer satisfaction rank: 15

Founded in 1968, Red Lobster began as a casual dining concept for high-quality seafood at an affordable price. Known for its cheddar biscuits, the chain serves popular seafood dishes such as snow crab legs, coconut shrimp, and rock lobster.

14. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers & Brews

Customer satisfaction rank: 14

The souped-up burger joint boasts 510 US locations, featuring the Chili Chili Cheeseburger, smothered in cheese, chipotle aioli, and a hefty portion of chili.

13. Olive Garden

Customer satisfaction rank: 13

Olive Garden operates 841 locations globally, earning almost $3.75 billion in sales last year. They specialize in Italian-inspired food.

12. Yard House

Customer satisfaction rank: 12

It was the sixth-fastest-growing chain in the country in 2015. Yard House prides itself on having some of the most extensively cultivated beer selections in the nation. Dedicated to customer experience.

11. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

Customer satisfaction rank: 11

Cracker Barrel provides an authentic atmosphere for its chain of combined country-cooking restaurants and old-fashioned general stores. Cracker Barrel now operates 635 locations and and has and average guest check of only $9.96.

10. Carrabba’s Italian Grill

Customer satisfaction rank: 10

Now boasting more than 240 locations, Carrabba’s offers customers Italian dishes that showcase the diverse cuisine, from traditional pastas to Tuscan-grilled steak.

9. The Cheesecake Factory

Customer satisfaction rank: 9

Value rank: 37

The California-based chain is widely popular for its generous portions, extensive menu, and more than 50 signature cheesecakes.

8. Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen

Customer satisfaction rank: 8

Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen offers traditional American cuisine and introduced a “575 calories and under” menu for customers wanting healthier options, such as grilled baja chicken and lemon pepper whitefish. The average guest check is only $12.45.

7. Maggiano’s Little Italy

Customer satisfaction rank: 7

The family-style chain features classic homemade Italian dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, and chicken parmesan. Just 51 US locations.

6. Texas Roadhouse

Customer satisfaction rank: 6

The Western-themed, family-run restaurant is known for its hand-cut steaks, tender ribs, generously portioned sides, and unlimited, fresh-baked bread and cinnamon butter.

5. Bahama Breeze Island Grille

Customer satisfaction rank: 5

Just 37 US locations. Bahama Breeze Island Grille serves up Caribbean-inspired fare with tropical cocktails to match.

4. Bonefish Grill

Customer satisfaction rank: 4

The chain focuses on “elegant simplicity” in its fresh, seasonal seafood dishes.

3. LongHorn Steakhouse

Customer satisfaction rank: 3

The chain now has 487 locations across the US. LongHorn touts its large steak selection and sizable margarita selection.

2. The Capital Grille

Customer satisfaction rank: 2

Th wine list runs more than 350 options deep, and many restaurant locations boast historical and cultural significance. A small chain with only 54 locations.

1. Seasons 52

Customer satisfaction rank: 1

Just 42 US restaurant locations, but the grill and wine bar earned the top ranking for customer satisfaction. The average check comes in at $31.80, though.


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