Backed by recent data and insight from restaurant leaders, an emerging category in full service is defining itself with chef-inspired menus and fresh ingredients, top-notch hospitality, and more as it evolves and grows into the future. And it’s all happening today.

It’s no surprise consumers are flocking to restaurant concepts where the guest experience is the primary focus, which is why the emerging NextGen Casual segment continues to be a winning formula for success. Combining the best of the full-service sector’s focus on hospitality with the technological advantages, comfort, and convenience seen in quick-service and fast-casual concepts, the category has become synonymous with constant evolution, improvement, and sustainable growth. 

A recent consumer report by King-Casey, a leader in restaurant and foodservice business data analytics and consumer insights, reveals the evolving preferences of diners have significantly shifted toward full-service restaurants that blend the allure of diverse menus with the comfort of a relaxed dining atmosphere. 

One revealing outcome: Though quick-serves foster the most frequent visits, full-service restaurants earned the highest levels of customer satisfaction, surpassing fast casuals as well. The net satisfaction score of quick service was 56 percent, fast casual 60 percent, full-service was 71 percent. 

“To see that full-service restaurants create the highest levels of satisfaction suggests that full-service brands have reinvested appropriately in the guest experience following the deep staffing challenges of the pandemic in 2020,” says James O’Reilly, CEO of Ascent Hospitality Management—whose portfolio includes more than 600 Huddle House and Perkins restaurants. 

“It’s also reassuring to see that guests continue to value great tasting food, a comfortable relaxing environment, and affordable prices,” he continues. “While this is a difficult balance to strike sometimes in a highly inflationary environment, it reinforces my belief that a renaissance for family dining is on the horizon, which we intend to lead at Ascent.”

When consumers are deciding where to dine, the most important considerations are a relaxing atmosphere, knowledgeable and attentive wait staff, comfortable seating, and not feeling rushed, which were all rated desirable by more than 80 percent of study respondents. 

“These usage behaviors and priorities ring true at Firebirds,” says Christine Lorusso, senior director of digital marketing at NextGen Casual concept, Firebirds Wood Fired Grill. “We cater to guests looking for a relaxing meal at a decent price point, as well as those who are celebrating everything from birthdays to engagements. Our goal is to create extraordinary experiences, no matter the reason for dining, so that guests continue to make us their restaurant of choice.”

Firebirds kept innovation at the forefront following the pandemic, where many brands fizzled on initiatives after COVID. The classic chain found a way to blend technology that speeds up operations while balancing hospitality and the guest experience. Examples include fully integrating third-party delivery and training delivery service providers to use Flybuy, a dashboard platform where workers can see incoming orders all in one place. Wait times dipped as low as 30 seconds while increasing repeat visits, and it also cut down carbon emissions by 11,857g each month by keeping cars from idling in the parking lot, FSR previously reported. 

Another illuminating statistic is Firebirds’ customer visit frequency. Before the pandemic, patrons frequented the brand about six times per year. Currently, this figure has risen to more than 10 visits annually, which can be attributed to offering more diverse dining options, such as family meals, feasts, and takeout services. 

While a relaxed and comfortable dining environment and attentive staff were the keys for consumers per the study, “hot button” NextGen themes like a limited menu, health, the environment, and technology fell further down on the list. But, it’s worth noting there are significant minorities of consumers who find those NextGen themes to be desirable.

“It doesn’t surprise me that ‘hot buttons’ fall a little bit lower on the priority list,” Lorusso says. “Themes like technology, sustainability, and chef-inspired menus should enhance the experience, not overshadow the importance of food quality or service.”

Liz Moskow, a food futurist and Principal at Bread&Circus Ltd. says, “when asked, most consumers will tell you they want to make more sustainable choices for the planet and be early adopters of technology to enhance convenience, but when it comes to dining, and food consumption in general, this data only confirms what hospitality experts with restaurant experience already know to be true; emotions rule the day when choosing what to eat and where to eat it. This is the core of hospitality; precisely catering to human needs and paying attention to what drives people to motivate, act, choose, purchase, eat, return.”

Ginger Flesher-Sonnier, owner and CEO of the Ginger Brands Hospitality Group, agrees. “People say they flock to Throw Social because we provide a casual, comfortable, relaxed vibe with plenty going on if they choose to participate,” she says. A math teacher turned entrepreneur, Flesher-Sonnier founded the experiential hospitality group that includes brands THRōW Social, Escape Room Live (sold in 2021), Kick Axe Throwing, and coming in 2024, Yacht Club Social.

“They love that they can spend two to four hours—or more—with us and never feel rushed to leave, but know that they can pop in and out if they just want a quick bite. In particular, having music and games combined with fresh and tasty food seems to be a winning ticket,” she says.

“The NextGen customer wants fresh-made food in a comfortable setting. They also want it to be quick and convenient. Staff engagement matters a lot as well. It is important to strike the right balance of convenience and hospitality,” adds Scott Lawton, CEO and cofounder of bartaco.

Meanwhile, the largest potential concern for customers when trying a new restaurant was a fear of prices being too high, which was articulated by more than a third of consumers. At lower levels and to varying degrees, consumers were concerned with portions being too small, the restaurant being too noisy/busy, and bland food that doesn’t look appetizing.

The bar program is a big part of Another Broken Egg Cafe’s ability to flex occasions.

The new definition of “value”

One of the largest recent shifts the restaurant industry has seen is the redefining of what “value” means to guests. “Value is not always perceived as being cost-based. Value can come at a higher price, so long as the quality and experience is worth it,” Lorusso says.

Brandy Blackwell, vice president of marketing for Another Broken Egg Café, says the study “further validates that value is not always created through discounts and promotions. Value is also realized through the delivery of a consistently great dining experience and an environment where connections can be celebrated and fostered.” Another Broken Egg Café is one of the fastest-growing, franchised breakfast and brunch concepts in the nation, with 95 locations—nearly 20 of which opened in 2023—and more in development, part of its “Road to 100” plan for 2024. 

Moskow notes “it seems to be increasingly more important for all kinds of restaurants to provide value, both real and perceived to their consumers, in new and engaging ways; portion sizing to price value, and sourcing of ingredients, the usage of healthy and/or trending ingredients, and menu call outs that evoke emotions and feelings. These feelings are what ultimately enhance both in-house and off-premises dining experiences.”

“Guests will continue to seek out brands that can deliver the full-value equation, which is much more than just the check,” adds Anita Adams, CEO of Black Bear Diner. “Enhanced technology is important to address a number of challenges restaurants face, however, will never be a substitute for hospitality.”

Black Bear Diner, which has more than 140 locations in 14 states and counting, is known for its home-cooked comfort foods and focus on providing guests with exceptional service. Its growth plan for 2024 includes welcoming at least nine new franchise-owned diners and five corporate restaurants. The new diners will be a combination of conversions and ground up new builds and will incorporate recent design enhancements to better accommodate off-premises dining, including an exterior delivery and pickup window. “Our investments at Black Bear focus on providing efficiencies and enhancing the guest experience without removing the connection our teams have with our guests,” Adams says.

“Our belief is guests continue to seek experiences that provide genuine hospitality, and our intent is to continue to emphasize this at Black Bear Diner,” she adds. “This has always been a pillar for us coupled with serving up an abundance of classic all-American fare in our beautiful cabin themed diners. This heritage truly stands the test of time and wrapped together provides the value guests are looking for.”

Honey Dusted Fried Chicken from Tupelo Honey.

A focus on scratch-made food

NextGen Casual restaurants have innovative, chef-inspired creations, typically with a streamlined menu and customization options. The study defined NextGen Concepts in the following way: “We are not trying to be everything to all people—just delivering better product consistency of clean, fresh, and craveable food.”

Last February, Asheville, North Carolina-based Tupelo Honey launched a program for its “raving regulars.” The brand empowered stores with budgetary money, tools, and marketing programs to recognize and reward loyal customers, including secret menu items, participation in focus groups, and tasting new products. A large part of what’s driving customers to return is the brand’s fresh and made-from-scratch food, from its blueberry compote that accompanies the blueberry buttermilk waffles for brunch to chef-inspired entrees like its Grilled Salmon and Creamy Quinoa with sustainably farmed Atlantic salmon, roasted carrots and cauliflower, smoked harissa sauce, and chives. 

“The study affirms what we see/hear from our customers about their affinity for our brand. It comes down to our commitment to scratch-made food and our unique niche in the Southern food space,” says Caroline Skinner, chief operating officer of Tupelo Honey Hospitality. “When these two things are paired with best-in-class hospitality and a comfortable dining experience, we excel at delivering a great guest experience.”

As far as food categories go, 81 percent of respondents say they ordered a burger in the past year. Mexican food and tacos (71 percent) were a close second, followed by chicken (69 percent), sandwiches (66 percent), breakfast (64 percent), Chinese food (62 percent), coffee/tea (58 percent), Italian/pasta (57 percent), barbeque (48 percent), steakhouse/prime rib (46 percent), seafood excluding sushi (38 percent), Japanese/sushi (30 percent), Thai/Korean/other Asian (26 percent), then Greek, Mediterranean, and Indian ordered by less than 20 percent of study participants.

Andrew Jaffe, chief marketing officer of Snooze, an AM Eatery, notes the brand’s focus on menu variety and creativity deliver on guests’ evolving needs and wants. “We pride ourselves in enhancing our Snooze experience with creative twists on our menu, unique multiethnic dishes, balanced with morning breakfast staples and healthy lifestyle items. All of this begins with sourcing responsibly ingredients that are always thoughtfully prepared and fresh,” he says.

Cai Palmiter, vice president of marketing for upscale ramen concept JINYA Holdings, notes the room for the growing ramen category to differentiate itself in the future, highlighting “an interesting challenge. It speaks to the broader issue of how specific cuisines are perceived and categorized by consumers,” she says. “It is our struggle with consumers to recognize ‘ramen’ and not ‘Japanese’ cravings in general because it is either broad or just focused on ‘sushi.’”

“It’s about shifting perceptions and educating the market,” she adds. “This is a classic example of how businesses need to not only excel in their product offering but also in how they communicate their unique selling points to the market. By focusing on creating a strong association with ramen, JINYA is aiming to break through the barriers of generalization and carve out a distinct niche in the culinary mindscape of its customers.”

Tomo Takahashi initially started the concept in Japan before bringing JINYA stateside to Hollywood, California, in 2010, and growing it to more than 60 locations. “At JINYA, the commitment to preparing food fresh and made-to-order truly makes a significant impact on customer perception and satisfaction. This approach, while more labor intensive, sets JINYA apart in a market often flooded with pre-prepared or quick-serve options,” Palmiter adds.

Andrew Jaffe, chief marketing officer of Snooze, an AM Eatery, notes the brand’s focus on menu variety and creativity deliver on guests’ evolving needs and wants.

Tech and off-premises

Geo Concepcion, CEO of The Greene Turtle, recalls how important digital ordering and delivery became in the full-service world, which was crystallized in focus by the pandemic. “With that wave behind us, we’re now seeing that guests want a dine-in experience that offers great service and value. The study confirms what we’re seeing day to day as our sales growth is coming from our late-night and happy-hour periods rather than off premises, as it had in the past few years,” he says.

In the end, NextGen Casual restaurants that find ways to enhance their offerings with human touches that are designed to amplify customer service, hospitality, convenience, and customization are poised to succeed. 

“We’re always looking for ways to utilize technology to help us more effectively deliver these core expectations. While other revenue channels [delivery, catering, pickup, etc.] are certainly beneficial, they aren’t our primary focus,” says Greg Graber, founder and CEO of Heritage Restaurant Brands, the franchisor of nearly 50 restaurants with concepts including Cool Hand Luke’s, a steakhouse/saloon; Perko’s Cafe Grill, which serves American family comfort food; and Huckleberry’s, a breakfast and lunch concept that serves up “Southern cookin’ with a California twist.”

“These revenue channels are primarily used by our loyal guests who enjoy the in-restaurant experience and then take advantage of our other options as needed,” he says. “If we take our eye off guests’ core expectations, we will eventually erode our loyal guest base and all revenue channels will decline. Consumers must be able to rely on your primary deliverables and, when they do, they’ll be much more apt to try new ways of experiencing the brand.”

Moskow believes tech is meant to encourage customer loyalty, provide deeper perceived or real value, and bolster a sense of human importance, and/or provide consumers with enhanced convenience and speed. “I see sustainability practices and the use of technology tools as layers to effective restaurant management; these layers should be added on top of consistent hospitality practices to make that restaurant selection more appealing, more satisfying, and more frequent,” she says.

“What good NextGen Casual concepts can take away from this is that by providing the value already inherent to the fast-casual segment—quality, price value, consistency—they are best positioned to layer on personal touches that will enhance hospitality and foster comfort and belonging,” she adds. 

“While this can be enhanced off-premises via pick-up and delivery to some extent, most of the focus needs to be on enhancing the in-store experience (dine-in or pick-up) to make people feel a sense of connection to the brand, the location, and to the people who make each unit run effectively. This focuses on the restaurant customer, but begins with educating and incentivizing internal teams with new training protocols, employee incentives, and real organizational indoctrination from the CEO down to the dishwasher on the power of what true hospitality and personal human connection and interaction can do.”

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Consumer Trends, Feature, Menu Innovations, NextGen Casual, Technology