The Rise of the Fast Casual Food Nation

The Rise of the Fast Casual Food Nation

The Rise of the Fast Casual Food Nation 1440 428 Chute Gerdeman

Americans will always have an affinity for fast food as the quick service channel serves the need for convenience, but as consumers are willing to pay more for a better quality experience, we’re seeing a shift from fast food to fast casual.

According to Euromonitor International, from 2011 to 2016 fast casual restaurants sales grew between 10 and 11 percent annually. Meanwhile, sales in the fast food industry only rose 3 to 4 percent, and full-service restaurants saw growth rates between 1.5 and 2 percent.

The trend will likely continue as the NPD group estimates fast casual growth in the double digits through 2022. Even at the peak of the recession in 2008, the category was still growing in double digits, as consumers with low discretionary spending tend to use it on healthier, quality options.

Meanwhile, Millennials, who make up over a third of the entire U.S. population, increasingly favor fast casual options over fast food, and eat out more often in general. They may be strapped for time, but they definitely won’t sacrifice quality, often seeking out fresher ingredients, diverse cuisines, and a unique experience.


From upgrading menu items to delivery, mobile apps, and tech integrations to remodeling restaurants, the QSR segment has made great strides to appeal to the appetites of these consumers. Most recently though we’ve seen signs of this segment taking on the attributes of their fast casual counterparts in order to stay competitive and respond to the growing needs for a greater experience beyond convenience.

Taco Bell Cantina

The fast food brand now known for the indulgent 4th meal (because three isn’t enough) is taking a little more progressive approach to the future of the fast food. While traditional locations derive 70% of business through the drive thru, the brand is now exploring urban in-line locations, and with that comes not only a different consumer demographic, but also a potentially more sophisticated palette.

With plans to open 300 to 350 of these fast casual inspired locations by 2022 it’s not only influenced menu innovations like shareables and plated foods instead of plastic bags, but also a new restaurant design aesthetic. These new community infused locations are now destinations to dine… cantinas.

Taco Bell Cantina
Taco Bell Cantina Seating

Not far from the breezy sea in Newport Beach you’ll find this new Mexican iteration. With bi-fold doors that open onto Irvine Avenue, and artwork commissioned by local artist, Joe Frizzelle, guests feel an immediate sense of authenticity. Coffered ceiling tiles, white washed locally reclaimed woods, concrete floors, communal tables, and an open kitchen all contribute to the modern vibe.

If this concept wasn’t already mature enough in concept, it’s also infused with alcohol. From beer and wine to sangria and Twisted Freezes, the focus is less grab and go and more dine and drink.

“[Growth has] been a challenge in the U.S. because you have a very mature market and it’s hard to find space [for more locations],” Taco Bell’s chief operating officer Mike Grams says. “One of the cool things happening in America right now is the revitalization of urban areas, and we’re seeing Millennials moving into downtown areas.”

Starbucks Roastery Reserve and Tasting Room

While coffee symbolizes the element of speed, the brand once known for creating “the 3rd place” is going back to its roots or roast and focusing on what makes them original. With drive thrus, mobile apps, and digital menu boards there’s no stopping the addiction to quality coffees, cappuccinos, and teas, but the brand has taken a position that there’s more to experience beyond a single cup.

Just a few blocks from the original location in Seattle, Starbucks opened an immersive experience where guests can watch the process from bean to cup. Focused on the unique, artisanal element of coffee, the 15,000 sq. ft. wonderland combines coffee production, testing, and exclusive offerings like coffee flights, floats and espresso ice creams. The menu changes seasonally and sometimes even daily based on the beans roasting.

Starbucks Roastery Reserve
Starbucks Roastery Reserve

Starbucks plans to launch as many as 500 of the Reserve Roastery and tasting Rooms in the next several years. Most recently the brand opened a 30,000 sq. ft. state-of-the art location in Shanghai. Integrating technology into the experience, guests get a true behind the scenes look through augmented reality. Visitors can scan elements throughout the space like the giant two-story 40-ton copper cask to learn more about the brewing methods and production process. The future of these locations focuses not only on the experience of coffee but reconnecting consumers to a culture of coffee.


While casual and fine dining restaurants have established themselves in the market through strong chef driven points of view, these same chefs are now discovering ways to bring their food to the masses with fast casual. This new fleet of fast casual concepts doesn’t require seasonal menu changes or an esteemed line of head cooks and sous chefs to carry out the culinary vision.


With a mission to bring quality food to consumers in a way that fits their way of life and wallets, world-renowned chef José Andrés developed the fast casual concept Beefsteak. Not to be fooled by the name though (actually referring to “beefsteak” tomatoes), this concept is veggie centric. Designed to fuel busy lifestyles for those who wish to eat well, the menu is made up of a bowls, sandwiches, salad, soups, and wraps, and veggies are the hero. In a made-to-order assembly line, guests can choose from the chef’s signature selections or customize their own with vegetables, grains, sauces, fresh toppings, and even optional meats and proteins.

Beefsteak Interior
Beefsteak Interior

With an overtly playful décor the fast casual concept feels fun. Light wood tones, mosaic tiles, and graphic murals balance the more whimsical elements of cartoon caricatures on the wall and vegetable crates on the ceiling.

From a college campus to a hospital and museum to a traditional shopping mall, the brand’s current location strategy demonstrates that healthy eating should be accessible anywhere. And, because its simplistic nature of food preparation nature (steamed food versus fried) it gives the brand the luxury to explore nontraditional locations with limited kitchen requirements.

Holler & Dash

Even countrified casual dining brand Cracker Barrel, known for down home cuisine, is exploring ways to capture a more contemporary, Millennial mindset. The Tennessee brand isn’t straying too far from its roots though with the launch of biscuit based concept Holler & Dash.

Hollar & Dash
Holler & Dash

Guests can choose from 10 signature biscuit selections along with breakfast-y bowls and sides. From the “Hollerback Club” a bacon, guacamole, fried green tomato, and Hollerback sauce to “The Jam” a biscuit filled with Nutella and raspberry jam, nothing on the menu says traditional. Not to be dismissed though, the modern coffee provisions are prominent for the craft coffee drinkers with cold brew, espresso, and hot drip options. Guests order at the counter then take a seat. Exposed brick, white tile, dark wood, concrete floors, create a bright, cheerful, and modern to the space.


QSR brands aren’t the only ones keeping up (or should we say slowing down) the pace. A new group of progressive CPG brands are now looking at opportunities beyond just immediate consumption to connect with their consumer audience in a way that feels relevant to their lifestyles.

Kellogg’s Cereal Cafe

Taking a modern approach to the basics of cereal, Kellogg’s first opened their café in the heart of Times Square. While many suggested the concept was more of a marketing tool, the brand wanted to change the perception of cereal with consumers. “We needed something that was more experiential. There’s a more lasting emotional connection if they experience it firsthand — that’s hard to do with a TV commercial.” said Aleta Chase, a marketing executive for Kellogg’s.

Kellogg's Cereal Cafe
Kellogg's Cereal Cafe

Proving popular and profitable the brand recently opened a new location five times the original in Manhattan’s Union Square. Giving guests the opportunity to “eat, chill, and create,” customers get to enjoy a full DIY cereal bar, explore unique pop tart and waffle stations, and even share their creations at an Instagram nook for the perfect photo op.

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