Click This: The Dollar Fifty Menu
More upscale than Micky D’s, a little shy of Le Bernardin—“fast-casual” eateries are hot.
By Adam Hunter
Let’s face it: When the economic going gets tough, even the toughest among us tend to get going to Sonic, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, and Burger King. But if these are Chili Cheese Tot times for many folks, that doesn’t mean we’re ready to give up amenities. In fact, long before the financial crisis of the late 2000s, so-called “fast-casual” restaurants like Boston Market and Au Bon Pain were shooting the gap between formal sit-down places like Chili’s and Friendly’s and the ornately-colored plastic booths of most fast-food chains. That need for feed in an environment more alluring than, say, a Jack in the Box, or for a quality bite that is quick and cheap but still fitting for those in weekday business attire, has pushed the fast-casual model to the fore of restaurant development.
It’s half past noon on a Monday in the heart of Boston’s Downtown Crossing. A lunch-hour crowd has descended for the grand opening of a new neighborhood eatery. Men and women wait in a line, stretching nearly out the door, to order sandwiches on artisan baked bread, while diners in a bigger rush grab one of the ready-made antipasto plates. Watching the busy scene unfold, Jamie Strobino couldn’t be more pleased. As senior vice president of new concepts for the Uno corporation—the company behind casual dining chain Uno Chicago Grill—this new place is his baby.
“Our CEO’s vision was to take a blank sheet of paper and create something to stand on the corner and compete against all the Paneras and Au Bon Pains of the world,” Strobino says. “We believe we’ve done that with Uno Dué Go.”
Technomic, a Chicago-based food service research and consulting firm, reported that, in terms of growth, the top 100 fast-casual restaurants greatly outperformed their full-service and drive-through brethren in 2010. With earnings topping $18 billion, fast-casual restaurants increased their sales by 6 percent from the year before. In comparison, the entire food industry grew a meager .4 percent, and sales at full-service restaurants fell 1.3 percent. Craving a Friendly’s Fribble or some Perkins’ pancakes? Good luck finding them—both chains filed for bankruptcy protection this year, as did fast-food Italian chain Sbarro’s. And even though that “I want my baby back, baby back” song is still stuck in your head, revenue for Chili’s has fallen for four straight years.
“Casual dining is a tough beast in terms of competition and the economy at the moment,” Strobino says. “People have cut down the amount of sit-down occasions. Fast-casual is less expensive, with no tip, and the average guest gets their food in less than five minutes. That’s big, particularly at lunch. The day of the hour-and-a-half, two-hour lunch is over.”
For fast-casual, being small is a big advantage. A typical Uno’s Chicago Grill takes up 5,000 to 7,000 square feet. Uno Dué Go fits into a footprint as small as 1,000 square feet. That means the company can expand into channels they had previously struggled to enter—airports, suburban strip malls, college campuses, even hospitals. “Our Boston location was a CVS Pharmacy until five years ago,” Strobino says.
Another hallmark of fast-casuals compared to fast-food is careful attention to atmosphere. “Fast-casuals are warm and inviting,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic. He cites open kitchens, flexible and comfortable seating, and even features like fireplaces as responsible for creating a better setting. Think of your typical fast-food joint. “Formica tabletops, fixed chairs. Since most of their traffic is drive-through, in-store decor is not a priority,” Tristano says.
Shake Shack, a fast-casual burger restaurant based in New York City, debuted beneath the tall trees in Madison Square Park; when founder Danny Meyer expanded to other, less bucolic locales, he incorporated leafy green trellises and exposed wood-and-steel beams to help maintain the ambiance. Just Salad, also in Manhattan, took a different tack to make its customers feel loved, offering its own online dating site. RedBrick Pizza, a southwest chain, provides LCD televisions at many tables that allow customers to change the channel and watch what they want.
McDonald’s, taking a page from this playbook, recently revamped the look of their locations nationwide and announced plans to develop their own in-restaurant television channel designed to keep diners in their seats longer. Burger King, meanwhile, added beer and wine “Whopper Bars” to some locations to compete with fast-casual competitors like Chipotle, which serves Mexican beers and margaritas.
For full-service players who enter the fast-casual market, paring down menu items or changing the menu all-together for a fast-casual version prevents dilution of the brand. At Uno Dué Go, you won’t find much from the Chicago Grill menu, other than their deep-dish pizza. “We don’t want people to confuse the two,” Strobino says. However, his team did develop muffins based on Uno’s cocktails, such as the Callebaut Chocolate Mint Mudslide and the Cranberry Pomegranate Margarita. “Not alcohol-based, but based on the flavor profile,” Strobino emphasizes. They hope the muffins will help establish the brand in the breakfast arena, a segment where Uno has been largely absent.
Fast-casuals, for the most part, have eschewed traditional advertising. Before Uno Dué Go opened, it built buzz with unbranded billboards, touting a website based on their address that sounded like some sort of club or place for haute cuisine: 52SummerStreet.com.
The result is an anti-corporate, homegrown feel—even though many fast-casuals have corporate partners. Similarly, nearly all of the fast-casual leaders promote their version of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” mantra, emphasizing the freshness, healthiness, and sustainability of the food they serve. The Boston Uno Dué Go sources its granola from Maine, its humanely raised pork from a New Hampshire pig farm, its cheddar from Vermont, and its mozzarella from a boutique farm in Rhode Island. “It’s fresher, leaves a better carbon footprint, and is better for the community,” Strobino says.
Shake Shack’s COO Randy Garutti says his company’s devotion to environmentally friendly practices appeals to its customer base and helps its new locations develop good relations with their surrounding communities. “We think people connect with our mission to ‘Stand for Something Good’—which resonates throughout every aspect of our business, from ingredients to hiring practices to design, environmental responsibility, and community investment,” Garutti says.
Of course, as fast-casuals expand, the harder it becomes to obtain sources for fresh local produce and ingredients, find dedicated staff, and oversee quality. In 2012, Shake Shack plans to open their first location in Philadelphia, and a second in Miami. “Every business decision we make will always be driven by the idea that the bigger we get, the smaller we need to act,” Garutti says.
“Some original players in this space have lost ground to new upstarts,” says Technomic’s Tristano, citing Fuddruckers and Boston Market. “With consumers’ rapidly changing needs, fast-casual restaurants have to evolve rapidly. They need to ask the right questions and not be afraid to hear the answer. Most importantly, they need to continuously improve every aspect of their restaurant.”