According to industry consultant Pentallect Inc., fast casual grew 10–11 percent for the next five calendars. Today it accounts for roughly 18 percent of revenue driven by the entire limited-service category.
Why this happened isn’t a great mystery. Superior décor, higher-quality food, and an elevated level of service was something a fresh generation of experience-driven diners wanted. As Shake Shack vividly brought to market in the mid-2000s, there was a need for brands designed with attention to how millennials saw themselves; restaurants they felt good belonging to and identifying with, from backstories of food purveyors on menus to the music playing in the background.
What shook the status quo, however, was the fact all of this proved possible without giving up on convenience. Or being asked to empty your wallet.
In turn, fast casual spun the quality wheel across quick service, forcing even the biggest and oldest chains to pay attention to freshness, sustainability, and what message they were selling to guests. Food as fuel was dead.
As history often does, this journey has begun to repeat itself. Only now, it’s the full-service industry witnessing one of its most transformative periods in history. It’s a movement that’s been mounting in recent years as casual-dining icons pulled back from overleveraged footprints accentuated during the rise of millennials a decade or so ago. And it’s received a serious COVID-19 jolt.
The full serves capitalizing on this climate, thriving, and growing today, don’t play by accepted rules or constraints accepted by preset definitions of what a restaurant looks like. Think streamlined menus. Clean, fresh, and craveable food. Adaptable, flexible, and dynamic footprints. Entrepreneurial cultures. Tech-ready and off-premises savvy. Hybrid models unafraid to cross segments.
Just like fast casual, these brands are also serving as change-agents for an entire category, establishing a new standard for employee care, culture, sustainability, vendor relationships, and expansion prospects. You see it already at big-box brands like Outback Steakhouse and Chili’s, which have pared down menus in favor of better execution. Or Applebee’s and its recent refocus on value and core equities. As fast casual killed food as fuel, this emerging full-service segment has sapped the all-things-to-all-people mindset casual chains gripped a few years back.
But what do you call it? Some refer to this group as “polished” or “upscale” casual, yet both terms aren’t widely understood or used by consumers and also, generally, gloss over a key element: the accessibility and approachability of better food and better service at an affordable price point. Again, where fast casual changed everything.
The biggest opportunity at hand for these full serves lies in meeting shifting guest preference brought forth by fast casual, but also satisfying a desire for experience in ways counter-service concepts never could.
Simply, the old classifications don’t do the movement justice.