The fast-casual segment has been leading innovation for some time now, surprising and delighting consumers with flavor-forward builds and strong brand narratives. And with that surprise and delight, this segment has moved the needle on guest expectation.
Fresh, mindful, bold, wholesome—these are terms that are part of today’s vernacular, replacing the now-stale demand for simply fast food. But despite these successes—or perhaps because of them—fast casual is seeing a bit of a slowdown.
Some analysts are calling out a decline in sales while others are reporting a slump in growth. “Fast casual has been a haven for those wanting to drive sales,” says Matt Harding, director of culinary at Piada Italian Street Food, a fast casual based in Columbus, Ohio.
“We’ve got so many burger places, pizza places, you name it, coming onto the field. You reach saturation, and so the winners shake out. Good isn’t good enough. Those who win have clearly defined flavors. They’re at the top of the flavor curve.”
Flavor, as usual, is the name of the game today—the challenge comes from pushing boundaries without alienating consumers.
Fast casual is also seeing a pull in focus, shifting from its origin story of merely bridging the gap between fast food and casual dining. “Fast casuals are emerging that are aligning more with fast-food models but with serious credibility in flavor and authenticity, like The Halal Guys, for instance,” says Rachel Kalt, creative director at The Culinary Edge, a consultancy based in San Francisco.
“On the other end, you have concepts emerging that are chef-driven with credibility as super-premium ‘fast’ food, like Souvla in San Francisco, a hip concept serving roasted meat sandwiches, salads and Greek yogurt.” The common thread, regardless of menu focus, is high-intensity flavors with built-in craveability.
As fast-casual concepts jostle for space in a now-crowded landscape, the ones that are thriving and growing possess the ability to build on successes while challenging themselves to anticipate the demands of an ever-evolving modern consumer.
We interviewed four fast-casual brands that are meeting this watermark. Their menus are vastly different from one another, but they are all in impressive growth mode. We tapped them for their insights on what’s working and how they’re evolving to stay current with modern flavor and dining preferences.