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Fast Casual: Not Your Grandfather’s Hamburger Joint

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

The first fast-food casual restaurant was White Castle, which first opened its doors in Wichita Kansas in 1921. However, according to a post by Accupos in its Positive Magazine blog, the history of fast food in America was secured in 1951 when that year’s edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary included the term for the first time. Thanks to the aggressive marketing tactics of McDonalds, which soon thereafter opened in 1955, the term “fast food restaurant” quickly became one and the same with the golden arches. (That is surprising when you consider that even A&W had arrived to the fast food scene decades before that in the 1920s).

Flash forward to the 21st century and you’ll see how hot dog carts and fast food restaurants of the past have had to up their game. They’ve been facing increasing competition from fast-casual restaurants.

Fast-casual dining gained popularity in the 1990’s from customers wanting to know nutritional facts about their food. The concept wouldn’t become mainstream until the late 2000’s as new technology emerged and diners became more health-conscious. This new appeal to the health conscious consumer might have been credited in part to former First Lady Michelle Obama, who helped create legislation to ensure labels better detailed nutritional information, including calorie counts.

By prioritizing organic quality ingredients without sacrificing time, fast-casual restaurants began opening up at an astonishing rate. This trend still continues.

Technology allows restaurants to analyze customer preferences and incorporate it into their cuisine. Keeping customers informed of healthy ingredients and where they come from has become the norm. Competition between fast-casual restaurants is driven by what is offered and what consumers really want. Franchises are adapting to the change by becoming more health-conscious and engaging the customer on the same frequency.

Fast-casual franchises not only raised the bar in terms of incorporating more healthy and organic ingredients, they have evolved when it comes to creating a dining experience that is uniquely modern and a cut above the casual fast-food chains of the past.

For example, Poke House, a popular chain in Northern California, is known for their wholesome poke bowls. One unique feature of this small chain is a menu that allows diners to customize and build their own poke bowl from a selection of protein-rich meats and mixed vegetable toppings. This has allowed the chain to adopt a socially conscious mission of providing healthy food to consumers and letting them take control of what they want to eat.

Another franchise that has become one of the leading figures in fast-casual dining is The Halal Guys. Starting off from its humble origins as a food cart in New York City in the 1990’s to becoming an international chain, Halal Guys sticks true to their traditional platter of gyro meat with rice. With their growing success, Halal Guys has opened numerous locations in the United States and abroad in Asia.

Poke House and The Halal Guys are excellent examples of how the fast-casual craze has caught on. This is also partly due to the emergence, habits, likes and dislikes of Gen Z, the youngest group of consumers who were born in or after 1995. It’s a group that has adopted the healthy eating, less sugar mantras of their parents.

According to a blog post by Millenial Marketing, casual service dining makes up the majority of Gen Z’s food spending. Restaurants like Chipotle or Panera are popular with Gen Z because they’re accessible, tech-friendly and use clean ingredients. Not to mention, they’re fast. Gen Zers have an attention span of eight seconds, so patience is not an essential virtue to them. (Gen Z is also known to be more socially conscious than even their Millennial counterparts).

Even what parents and grandparents of Gen Z would still consider your garden variety hamburger joint is still doing a lot more than just serving up burgers made to order.

For example, The Burgerville restaurant chain converts cooking oil from its restaurants and composts waste to communicate their value of being environmentally-friendly.

Interior design plays a key role in helping restaurant owners translate their fast casual concept, whether it is a franchise or not, into a dining experience that checks all the boxes: healthy food created in a socially conscious way that is served-up fast and in an innovative and unique environment that appeals to Gen Z consumers and beyond.

Say goodbye to the old school hot dog carts of the past, which may be well on their way to becoming the dinosaurs of dining, and welcome in a new era of fast-casual. With endless ways to bring a unique fast-casual concept to market, it’s a good thing for both consumers and restaurant owners alike.


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