A Healthy Alternative to Fast Food: The Rise of Fast Casual Restaurants

Article by Renesha Poole | 934 words

Fast food is a symbol of America. It emerged in the 1950s and continued to be a staple of the American diet for the rest of the millennium. However, its presence hasn’t been quite as strong lately. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast food restaurants are struggling to keep a steady flow of fast food aficionados coming through their doors.

On Quartz.com, writer Max Nisen explains that the sales growth of McDonald’s restaurants that were opened for at least a year were down 1.7 percent worldwide and 4 percent in the US. Newsmax.com also reports that McDonald’s will soon close about seven hundred of its underperforming restaurants worldwide. This may not be a huge percentage of its total stores, but the move reveals that the fast food chain has hit a stumbling block in its quest for world domination.

Part of this slump can be attributed to how “fast casual” dining is capturing the stomachs of people everywhere. As fast food’s popularity and revenue have declined, fast casual dining has risen to take its place.

Chipotle Restaurant

Credit: NRN.com

Defining a Fast Casual Restaurant

There’s not a concrete definition of what constitutes as fast casual food. The answer varies from person to person. In fact, Darren Tristiano, the executive vice president of Technomic, an industry research firm, has said, “It’s all very confusing. The truth is that no one really has the ‘right answer.’”

In writer Roberto A. Ferdman’s article “The Chipotle effect: Why America is Obsessed with Fast Casual Food,” he explains that, despite the difficulty of fully understanding what fast casual dining is, there are some general characteristics behind it. The price point at fast casual restaurants falls between $9 and $13 dollars per receipt, and the restaurants earn less than 50 percent of their business from full-service sit-down meals. Other sources list more in-depth criteria like those set by Technomic, such as the quality of the food, the use of better ingredients, friendly employees, freshness and fair pricing. If you need a better idea of what fast casual is, think Chipotle, Five Guys and Panera Bread.

The Appeal of Fast Casual Food

Ferdman notes that fast casual isn’t a brand new food category. It can be traced back to the early 1990s when certain restaurants wanted to differentiate themselves from fast food restaurants by delivering a superior food and atmospheric experience—and it worked. Fast casual has increased tremendously since its emergence in the 90s. Data from Euromonitor, a research firm, revealed that fast casual has grown by 550 percent since 1999. In 2013, Americans spent $21 billion at fast casual restaurants.

So, what’s prompting this shift from fast food to fast casual? Changing attitudes toward healthier food is one factor. On BusinessInsider.com, writer Luc Olinga notes instances in which hospitals have terminated their contracts with McDonald’s to reflect their commitment to more favorable food choices for a healthy lifestyle. John Bluford, the former chief executive of Truman Medical Centers, said of his decision to end the hospital’s affiliation with fast food, “It was a health-concerned decision and a mission-driven decision, given our mission to improve the health of our community.”

Healthier means fresher, higher-quality food, which has become a more prominent concern for customers in recent years. Consumers want to know the who, what, when and why behind their food. Fast casual satisfies the curiosity of consumers by proudly stating its food’s origins. Transparency has worked in the favor of fast casual restaurants that boast fresh, all-natural products—arguably fast casual’s biggest appeal to consumers. It’s a claim that fast food can’t make. Fast food’s lack of fresh, all-natural products has been criticized countless times amongst consumers and health advocates alike. It’s no wonder the consumption of fast food has declined.

Hitting the Brakes on Fast Food

On Forbes.com, writer Robert Passlkoff explains that food fast has lost its popularity with consumers of various demographics. He focuses on a study conducted by Brand Keys, a brand and customer loyalty consultancy. The study examined the attitudes and behaviors of three different generations: Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials, toward fast food and fast casual.

The study found that Baby Boomers primarily wanted better service, a quality that fast food restaurants have fallen short on. The number of Baby Boomers visiting fast casual restaurants has increased by 20 percent in recent years. Members of Generation X mostly wanted better food for their money. Passlkoff writes, “They feel the fast-casuals offer that to them too, equal to and more often than fast food brands.”

Millennials showed a 20 percent decrease in visits to fast food restaurants. Roughly 13 percent indicated that they felt fast food was edible but “not much more than that.” About 42 percent of Millennials reported increased visits to fast casual restaurants within the last year. Plus, 89 percent said fast casual food is tastier and healthier than fast food, and 48 percent said that they were willing to pay more for fast casual because it is worth more.

An unhappy meal

Credit: NewHealthOM.com

Consumers’ desire for healthier, tastier, fresher food has brought big changes to the menus of fast food restaurants. Recently, McDonald’s debuted its artisan-grilled chicken, which has no preservatives. Taco Bell’s cantina menu features options that are marketed as fresh and gourmet.

I think it’s safe to say that fast food is still a staple of American cuisine. However, fast food restaurants will have to continue to adjust their menus if they want to appeal to a growing number of consumers who believe quality is more important than quick service. In the meantime, fast casual restaurants will continue to plant their roots in even more places.

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