U.S. restaurant chains of all stripes are taking on fast-casual attributes to evolve their concepts and remain relevant to consumers.
Change is one of the few constants in the restaurant industry. Whether restaurants are adding another daypart, updating the décor or introducing new prototypes, the best foodservice operators understand that, to succeed in the business, they should be aware of the unpredictability of the industry and be open to evolving.
In the past few years, we’ve seen many U.S. concepts make some key changes to keep up with the restaurant industry’s best performer: the fast-casual segment. Thanks to customisable and craveable options, premium ingredients and quick service, growth of the fast-casual segment is outpacing that of the quick-service and full-service sectors. As reported in Technomic’s Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report, turnover for the restaurant industry as a whole from 2011 to 2012 increased 5.2%, including a 5.8% rise in limited-service turnover and a 4.5% increase in full-service turnover. In comparison, turnover for the fast-casual segment increased 13.0% from 2011 to 2012, and that growth is expected to continue.
To compete with fast-casual restaurants, quick-service and casual-dining operators are branching out of their comfort zones to find different ways to reach new consumers as well as retain their customer base. Full-service chains such as Applebee’s and Red Lobster have introduced fast-casual elements to attract on-the-go consumers, and Burger King, which receives most of its business from drive-thru and carryout orders, added delivery service to increase its convenience factor. Other chains like Auntie Anne’s and Chick-fil-A are using food trucks to generate brand awareness by bringing their food to festivals, sporting events and community gatherings.
It’s not just existing chains that understand the need to evolve. The latest crop of limited-service pizza concepts, which includes Pie Five Pizza Co. and MOD Pizza, functions more like a Chipotle than a Pizza Hut. Patrons create their pizzas by making their way through an assembly line-style queue, choosing a crust, sauce, cheese and toppings as they go. They then receive their pizzas in minutes, sometimes by the time they reach the cash register. This style of ordering allows diners to be much more involved in the pizza-making process than at a traditional limited-service pizza concept, where patrons usually don’t watch the preparation of their pizzas. The customisability and quick service are some of the reasons why Technomic predicts made-to-order fast-casual pizza concepts are the next “better burger.”
Below are some examples of operators thinking outside of the box in order to keep their concept relevant in the ever-changing restaurant industry.
Full Service to Limited Service
In the U.S., the limited-service sector is growing at a faster rate than the full-service segment, leading some of the country’s top full-service chains to experiment with limited-service prototypes. In August, midscale chain Bob Evans launched Bob Evans Express, a new counter-service prototype for nontraditional venues such as corporate offices, universities and shopping malls. The new format, which offers a limited menu of hot foods along with packaged items, was designed to expose patrons who otherwise wouldn’t have the time to visit a sit-down Bob Evans restaurant to the chain’s signature homestyle breakfast and lunch offerings.
Earlier this year, U.S. casual-dining seafood chain Red Lobster began testing a new limited-service offering, Seaside Express, at two of its Florida locations. Patrons visiting the restaurants can choose either the standard full-service Red Lobster dining experience or order from the Seaside Express counter, which offers a menu of mains such as burgers, sandwiches and flatbreads, priced between $6.99 and $8.99 (approximately £4.50 and £5.79). After ordering, customers seat themselves and a server brings out their food. Because patrons pay for their meals at the counter, the concept is meant to appeal to diners who are pressed for time and may not like waiting for a cheque to be brought to the table. It also appeals to those looking for a discounted Red Lobster experience—the Seaside Express menu features lower-priced mains compared to Red Lobster’s standard menu.
Also earlier this year, Applebee’s expanded its limited-service model, Applebee’s Express Lunch, to 23 company-owned locations in the U.S. The format, first launched in Kansas City in July 2012, is similar to Seaside Express, in that patrons choose to either sit down and be waited on or order their meal from the Express counter, then seat themselves. The menu features pick-two combos starting at $6.99.
The Un-Delivered Pizza
Today’s trendiest limited-service pizza concepts don’t focus on delivery—in fact, most don’t even offer it. Fast-casual pizza concepts such as Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint and Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza are revolutionizing the limited-service pizza industry by specializing in create-your-own personal pizzas. Thanks to high-tech pizza ovens that cook pies at incredibly high temperatures, patrons no longer have to call ahead to place a takeaway order or sit at their house waiting for a pizza to be delivered. Now, customers can simply line up at a counter, choose their crust, sauce and premium toppings, and either have their pizzas ready for them by the time they reach the cash register or brought to their table by a server in minutes.
One of the largest points of differentiation is that these fast-casual pizza concepts focus on dine-in service. Instead of operating out of small, minimally decorated counter units, these restaurants feature a hip, chic décor and plenty of seating to attract dine-in consumers. Most also menu adult beverages, a characteristic that attracts value-seeking consumers on a dinner date or group outing who may not have the funds to visit a full-service restaurant and provide a tip.
These new concepts haven’t gone unnoticed by the quick-service pizza sector. Pizza Inn, a U.S. pizza chain that consists mostly of buffet and counter-service restaurants, launched its own fast-casual made-to-order pizza concept, Pie Five Pizza Co., in 2011, which has since grown to 14 locations. Sbarro, another U.S. quick-service pizza chain, is set to debut a fast-casual pizza concept, Pizza Cucinova, later this year.
Not all pizza chains are launching fast-casual concepts; some are instead choosing to incorporate fast-casual elements into their existing concept. Within the past few years, Domino’s Pizza has converted dozens of restaurants into its Pizza Theater prototype. The model still functions like a typical Domino’s Pizza unit but features a comfortable dining room and an open kitchen for patrons to watch the preparation of their pizzas. Other new elements to the Pizza Theater prototype include ordering kiosks, electronic order tracking, and chalkboards where customers can doodle and leave feedback while waiting for their order.
In contrast, some quick-service concepts are updating their concepts by adding delivery services. In 2012, Burger King launched delivery in the U.S. at select locations in Washington, DC, and has since expanded the service to select markets in 14 states, from California to Illinois to New York. The chain boasts that hot food is delivered hot and cold food is delivered cold, thanks to new innovative packaging. The service is designed for large orders (a minimum order amount of $10 is required), so in addition to Burger King’s standard offerings, the delivery menu also features several large combo meals, like a four-sandwich bundle with fries and an option with 10 cheeseburgers and 20 chicken nuggets.
A loyalty program specifically for customers using the delivery service has been implemented to bring in more users. Those who use the service and are enrolled in the loyalty program receive a free sandwich with every fourth order.
It will be interesting to see if the service succeeds and if other concepts will be inspired to launch delivery. Burger King says customers in the U.S. have embraced the new option, and it continues to expand delivery to other U.S. markets, most recently to Washington State and Minnesota. But so far, it appears only one other major U.S. quick-service chain, White Castle, has followed suit. The popular burger chain has been testing delivery at a restaurant in Columbus, OH, since earlier this year and recently added delivery to a second site in Columbus, but it hasn’t discussed any plans to expand the service nationwide.
While the fast-casual segment is booming in the U.S., it is relatively new in the U.K.—only seven of Technomic’s Leading 100 U.K. Chain Restaurants are classified as fast casual. However, all of those chains posted turnover increases in 2012, and three of them–Patisserie Valerie, PAUL and Le Pain Quotidien–reported double-digit turnover growth. As a group, they increased sales by 8.5% and grew their unit count by 6.6%.
With these numbers, along with the recent entry of U.S. fast-casual concepts like Shake Shack and Five Guys Burgers and Fries in the U.K., we can expect the U.K. fast-casual sector to continue growing. Thus, it’s likely we’ll see top quick-service and casual-dining chains in the U.K. evolve their concepts to compete with the growing fast-casual segment.