Not So Fast: The Relaxed, Slowed-Down, Lounge-ization of Fast Food

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The traditional formula for fast food franchises—get ’em in, get ’em fed, get ’em out—is changing. Lately, chains known for being among the quickest of all quick-service restaurants are installing fireplaces and cushy seats for a comfortable lounge vibe that invites customers to linger longer.

A fireplace in a fast-food restaurant? Yes, the concept has raised a few eyebrows since Wendy’s introduced it earlier this year. More than 200 Wendy’s in North America will be outfitted with gas-powered fireplaces this year, along with faux-leather chairs as part of a makeover aimed at creating a cozier, more upscale atmosphere.

“It feels more like a hangout,” one college student said to the Orlando Sentinel, describing a freshly renovated Wendy’s in central Florida. (Yes, they’re even putting fireplaces in Florida — and no, they don’t emit heat.)

Wendy’s is one of several national fast-food chains experimenting with or fully pushing toward a lounge-y look and feel, in which customers are enticed to, well, lounge rather than just scarf down grease and run out the door. The lounge-ization trend comes after years in which fast food giants have seen two categories of restaurants encroach on their business: 1) fast-casual chains (Panera Bread, Chipotle) where the food is higher quality and the environment is more welcoming; and 2) upscale coffee shops (Starbucks), where service is personalized and customers are invited to socialize and take advantage of the Wi-Fi. In either case, customers have naturally grown accustomed to hanging out in such comfortable environments, which has led to an increase in visits.

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For the most part, fast-food customers hit fast-food restaurants because (duh) they’re fast. And while diners still want fast service, they seem to also want the option of a slower, relaxed dining experience—something you just don’t get crammed into a hard plastic booth, or while speeding in and out of the drive-thru.

“We’re moving a little bit toward the fast-casual,” Craig Madanick, a Wendy’s field-marketing manager, explained to the Sentinel. “We feel it’s necessary for us to stay competitive and gain the upper edge to offer a new environment to our consumers.”

Likewise, McDonald’s has been engaged in a makeover for years that many say is inspired by Starbucks, featuring higher-quality coffee and more of a café-lounge atmosphere. Taco Bell, renowned for scary fast service, has been testing out a new look that includes a lounge with cushioned seating and more outlets to people charging smartphones or laptops. “Consumers told us they wanted an environment where they could sit and stay a while,” Don Roberts, Taco Bell’s director of concept development, told Nation’s Restaurant News last autumn.

Dunkin Donuts’ latest designs incorporate flat-screen TVs, soft seating, and satellite music playing jazz to “create a warm environment for guests who seek a longer, more relaxed visit to Dunkin’ Donuts,” a recent company press release announced. “We haven’t always been conducive to that relaxed environment,” Dunkin Donuts CEO Nigel Travis said to Bloomberg News. “So soft seating, the ability to watch TV, to listen to appropriate music and just do things slightly slower than you would in the morning is what we think we’ve been missing.”

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Dairy Queen, another traditionally ultra-fast service chain, has been speeding up its expansion of the DQ Grill & Chill concept—a style of restaurant that is larger than the usual Dairy Queen, serves lunch, dinner, and breakfast, and invites customers to “chill” out during a relaxed dining experience. Earlier this summer, Dairy Queen restaurants began appearing in parts of the greater New York City metropolitan area where they hadn’t been seen in decades, and they of course popped up in the Grill & Chill format. Dairy Queen hasn’t been in Long Island since the 1970s, but one opened in Massapequa in June. Another full-service DQ just opened in Staten Island. In addition to retro artwork on the walls, “the cafe-style seating includes sleek tables and cushioned chairs that have sturdy right arms to hold food and drinks,” reports the Staten Island Advance.

Even Domino’s, which has a business model dominated by delivery and takeout, is undergoing a redesign that adds seating, open kitchens where pizza makers are tossing dough front and center, and chalkboards where customers can doodle and write comments. The vast majority of customers will be out the door as soon as their food is ready, but the point is to create a more handsome and comfortable space—one where customers wouldn’t be miserable hanging out for a little while.