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The Stars of the Fast Casual Restaurants Boom

June 6, 2014 | By | No Comments

The restaurant scene in your city will look completely different in a decade or less, the result of the quick rise of fast casual restaurants. Do restaurants like Chipotle, Panera, and Noodles & Company dominate your list of Faves in your ChainWise iPhone app? If so, chances are you have frequented at least one fast casual franchise recently.

Fast Casual Chain

The fast casual chain Moe’s Southwest Grill is rapidly growing.

What is a Fast Casual Restaurant?

Fast casual has the affordability and relaxed atmosphere of fast food. They combine that with higher quality ingredients typically found in casual “sit-down” restaurants. The other identifying feature, which contributes to the affordability, is counter service instead of waitstaff. The fast casual dining segment is now the fastest growing sector of the restaurant industry. The most recent sales data shows no indication of fast casual being a passing fad.

Diners Win As Nearby Restaurants Compete

Whenever an industry experiences this kind of abrupt change, the consumer usually comes out the winner. Diners have more choices available to them and the increased competition has kept prices in check. A larger number of restaurants are vying to become top-of-mind with hungry patrons looking for just the right spot to get a meal.

The MVPs of Fast Casual Franchises

Last month, the industry announced the 2014 Fast Casual Top 100 Movers & Shakers in the restaurant business during an awards gala at the National Restaurant Association‘s trade show in Chicago. The event was sponsored by Networld Media Group and FastCasual.com. Judges were asked to identify the top 50 brands among nearly 900 industry nominations. Winners were selected based on criteria like innovation, social responsibility, growth and overall contribution to the restaurant chain business. Along with recognizing brands, the judges also acknowledged 20 of the top execs who were thought to be the most innovative and influential. The executives particularly excelled in the areas of menu, healthy eating and technology use.

In addition to looking at chain restaurant brands and leading executives, the program recognized innovative menu items and technology trends in the fast casual sector. If you are a fan of Smashburger, Chipotle Mexican Grill or Fazoli’s, you won’t be surprised to learn the restaurants placed first, second and third, respectively, for top brands.

Fazoli’s CEO Carl Howard walked away with honors as the industry’s top executive. Greg Creighton, chief operating officer of Smashburger, said that the fast casual burger chain saw a niche that fast food burger chains could not fulfill. His franchise targeted fast food’s weaknesses: quality, service and dining atmosphere.

Creighton said Smashburger sees a healthy appetite for higher quality burgers and chicken sandwiches, as well as salads. Smashburger’s phenomenal growth is not likely to slow anytime soon. The restaurant has grown to 267 locations in just seven years. Another 400 are set to open before the end of 2015. One of Smashburger’s secrets to success, in addition to an innovative menu, is its ability to establish a loyal local following in the communities where it operates. Every city with a Smashburger location is given its own special burger to honor local traditions. Smashburger also offers locally crafted beers, which is an industry segment experiencing its own meteoric rise. The option to have a drink adds to the chain’s hometown appeal.

The top menu trend recognized during the function was bite-sized food and snacks, while the most influential technology trend was identified to be mobile apps like ChainWise.

It’s likely fast casual dining will continue to make its mark. Of the $231 billion limited-service category, fast casual options now account for $34.5 billion, according to foodservice research firm Technomic. The fast casual segment is truly the engine of growth in the overall restaurant industry. Sales increased 11 percent in 2013 for the fast casual segment versus just 3.5 percent for the overall industry.

Written by Lori Weaver. You can find her on Google.

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