The times, they are a’changin’. Along with the times comes eating habits, changes in food preparation, ingredients, and presentation, as well as restaurants Americans love. Add TV cooking shows, and you have a recipe for excitement and anticipation.
Trending now in the food industry is the fast-casual restaurant. These eateries prepare food fast, but it’s not fast food. The menu choices are more imaginative. The ingredients tend to be locally sourced. It’s by far cooler and healthier eating than fast food.
For those unfamiliar with fast-casual dining, there are several to choose from. In the South, you’ll see Zaxby’s. Begun near a college campus, the stores spread along the East Coast. They cook chicken in dozens of ways along with salads, sides, and some pretty amazing chocolate chip cookies.
Everyone is familiar with Chipotle’s, the masters of the burrito. You all know Panera Bread with its freshly baked bread, soup, sandwiches, and desserts. Boston Market has a huge presence on the East Coast but can be found nationwide with their rotisserie chicken, pot pies, and hot vegetable plates. That’s what fast-casual is; what are the trends in fast-casual?
1. Digital Is King
In the first months of the pandemic, Americans weren’t allowed to leave their homes. We quickly discovered how to order our groceries, medicines, household necessities, and pretty much everything else online. That included food we were too anxious to cook.
Restaurants went digital like lightning. They found a delivery staff, made mobile apps, bought to-go boxes and bags, and they were off to the races. These restaurants were found in Google’s top ten rankings, their menus pictured, and most importantly, their reviews were right there with the menus and logo.
Fast-casual restaurants having a strong social media presence, online reviews, as well as specials and discounts for online purchases are beginning to outlive their fast-food cousins.
2. Pick-Up And Delivery Is Bigger Than Ever
Pick-up and delivery were a convenience before the pandemic. In those first months, it was a necessity. It’s just as big as ever right now, and we don’t think delivery will ever stop.
While some restaurants, even sit-down restaurants, quickly gathered a delivery staff, it was the third-party delivery systems like UberEats and DoorDash that cleaned up. They, too, were a convenience before the pandemic; afterward, and to this day, they remain vital to the delivery of food.
3. Have Variety, Will Travel
Americans are tired of the same-old, same-old. They want Mediterranean food, Middle Eastern falafel, Tex-Mex, French, and English, along with new and imaginative ways of cooking the same-old, same-old. Healthy Mediterranean and Keto diets, as well as smoothies and healthy shakes, are trending now.
Fast-casual places offering healthy salads, soups, and sandwiches (some on lettuce leaves for an un-wich a la Jimmy John and others,) healthy and imaginative smoothies and shakes for on the go are trending now. Many Americans are working between the office and home, so grabbing healthy and difference is a happy thing.
4. Only The Best Ingredients Will Do
Today’s diners are savvier than in days gone by. Today, they want the freshest of foods, grown nearby, and with very little canned or boxed ingredients. Diners want transparency. They want trust. After all, it’s their health they’re talking about.
Fast-casual restaurants are answering this call with joy. Locally sourced foods are easier on their budgets, they walk out the door in satisfied customers’ tummies, in addition to being there when restaurateurs call the sources. No more waiting on a warehouse shipment; the growers are there in no time.
All this is easier on the budget. There’s little reason to arrange storage in the kitchen or fridge. It’s quicker to process, so dishes are more quickly cooked and plated. This means more satisfied diners who will return time after time, which also benefits the budget.
5. It’s About Location
The parking lots of shuttered stores are prime real estate for food trucks. Whether your choice is old-fashioned Sunday dinner take-out, barbecue, seafood, Middle Eastern, steak, burgers, tacos, pizza, desserts, smoothies, shakes, or everything lobster, there’s a food truck with your name on it.
Some food trucks use parking lots for a more or less permanent site, while others travel to different parts of a city for a limited time. Either way, many, if not all, food trucks prepare their foods using locally sourced ingredients, cooked in imaginative ways. They’re reasonably priced, and it doesn’t look like the trend will end anytime soon, thankfully.
Those shuttered stores make great food halls. The Millennial generation seeks out and are loyal to fast-casual restaurants with good food, good prices, and good friends. They sit at long or large round tables with samples of dozens of types of foods on the tables and share the experience with all kinds of people, friends or otherwise.
While the pandemic closed down many companies, their former properties have been snatched up by fast-casual food companies catering to the sharing culture. Now that restaurants have been open for a while, they’re seating diners with lots of space between them. Food halls are no different.
6. Adding Revenue Streams
The days of sitting down to a meal in a restaurant are gone. Today’s fast-casual eateries offer meal kits, retail products, or classes in various subjects. If you’ve ever driven from Florida to Pennsylvania, then you’ll understand what we’re talking about. You’ve probably stopped for food at a Cracker Barrel restaurant and bought a retail product there (maybe even one of their beautiful rocking chairs.)
7. It’s About The People
While many of the fast-casual eateries are using the latest technology to streamline their kitchens and other aspects of foodservice, it’s the people that make it all happen. The wage hike to $15 an hour in many restaurants has brought a new level of food service to diners. People are staying in foodservice longer, delivering better service, and restaurants are seeing an uptick in profits. This, perhaps, is the most enduring of fast-casual dining trends.