When a prototypical fast food chain like KFC pushes into the realm of “fast casual,” what do terms like “fast food” and “casual dining” mean nowadays?
Next month, fast-food giant KFC is opening up a new concept restaurant called KFC eleven near the brand’s headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky. Eater Louisville posted a photo of the new restaurant’s logo, which features a silhouette of a chicken and the worlds “KFC eleven” (yes, “eleven” in lowercase) in subdued gray and maroon tones rather than the traditional bright red, white, and black. No Colonel Sanders is to be seen. The concept is supposed to be an upscale extension of KFC, according to the Associated Press, with a menu featuring flatbreads and rice bowls in addition to KFC’s boneless pieces of Original Recipe chicken.
A job ad for the restaurant explained, “KFC eleven will transform how people think about the brand, and we’re looking to build a spirited crew to bring these fresh and amazing flavors to today’s consumers.”
The move is a pretty clear indication that “KFC has Panera envy,” as USA Today put it. KFC is hardly the only fast food chain to be envious of Panera Bread—and Chipotle, and other highly successful brands operating in the fast-casual restaurant category. For the few unfamiliar, “fast casual” refers to a style of restaurant that’s generally as fast as fast food, and also includes an ordering system like fast food (at the counter, not waiter service), and yet the food itself is healthier, of higher quality, and a bit more expensive than fast food.
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Over the years, as Panera, Chipotle, and “better burger” fast casual chains like Five Guys have been expanding like crazy and stealing business away from fast food and casual sit-down restaurants alike, fast food chains have fought back by trying their hands at more upscale fare. Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and other burger-focused brands have put bigger and better burgers on the menu for $4 or $5. (McDonald’s recently pulled the plug on its Angus burger because not enough of its customers were game to pay $5 for a single sandwich.) Taco Bell, meanwhile, has been trying to transform its image as just a low-end option with the rollout of a pricier Cantina Bell menu.
It’s understandable why Taco Bell, KFC, and other QSRs (quick service restaurants, a.k.a. fast food) are slowly skewing fast casual. Data collected by QSR Insights shows that fast casual restaurants are particularly popular among millennials—the young adult demographic that we constantly hear about as enormously important as a consumer base. What’s more, Nation’s Restaurant News recently quoted a report written by David Tarantino of Robert W. Baird & Co., who says that current market conditions favor fast casual over fast food businesses:
“We generally are more optimistic about top-line fundamentals for specialty-coffee concepts like Starbucks and fast-casual brands like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread than we are for QSR chains and certain casual-dining concepts.”
It’s not just fast food that’s shifting toward the fast casual model. Casual sit-down, waiter-served chains such as Olive Garden, P.F. Chang’s, and Applebee’s have been introducing fast-casual elements as well. The Orlando Sentinel reported earlier this year that casual dining chains like Olive Garden and Red Lobster (both owned by Darden, based in Orlando) are “in the throes of a midlife crisis.” To counter flagging sales, Olive Garden and Applebee’s, among others, have been tweaking lunch menus and offering dishes that are lower-priced, healthier, and available for express takeout—in other words, they’re doing their best imitation of Panera Bread or Chipotle, at least during lunch hours.
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As fast food and casual dining both aspire to be more like fast casual, an Atlanta-based restaurant concept aims to create an entirely new category: fast fine. Fresh to Order, or f2o, calls itself“the pioneer of the innovative, “fast-fine” restaurant segment,” which “combines the quality of food found in casual fine dining with the operational platform and price points of fast casual.” Customers can expect things like blackened lime shrimp and seared tofu on the menu, will orders that typically run about $10 and are ready in less than 10 minutes. The brand has eight locations in the Atlanta area, and has plans for a handful of restaurants in Nashville, among other cities.
Does the label “fine fast,” or even “fast casual,” really mean much to consumers? (Back in 2007, TIME, in fact, described Chipotle as “Fine Fast Food” in a headline.)
Industry insiders have been noticing that the lines between fast food, fast casual, and casual dining have been blurring at least since last year. A Technomic report issued last summer noted that it would get increasingly difficult to label restaurants:
Fast-food patronage thrives on its convenience and value, while food distinction and ambiance are key factors driving patronage at fast-casual locations. Look for a blurring of the lines between fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, with operators in each subsegment tweaking their concepts with new unit designs and convenient service formats in order to remain competitive.
This doesn’t mean that consumers don’t notice any difference between fast food and fast casual. A new Technomic post reveals that, despite the blurring of restaurant categories, customers have different expectations for varying brands. Generally speaking, consumers expect a lot more from fast casual chains, including friendlier service and food that’s high quality and healthy. They also expect it to be ready just as quickly as fast food. “Fast-casual concepts promise the best of both (limited- and full-service) worlds,” Technomic’s Darren Tristanto writes. “Consumers, it seems, expect nothing less.”
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By now, customers lining up at KFC, Taco Bell, and McDonald’s should have a pretty good idea what to expect out of their dining experience. As these chains push upscale and make claims about fresher ingredients and higher quality options, customers will come to expect a lot more to justify the higher price points. No matter what category of restaurant a brand fills, its success will be based on how it meets—and ideally surpasses—customer expectations.