Fresh casual restaurants take off in the U.S.

 —  Article by Laura Agadoni
fresh arugula salad with beetroot, goat cheese, bread slices and walnuts with metal fork in hand, product photography for restaurant or healthy lifestyle;
Image credit: Shutterstock

Stop in to any fresh casual restaurant and it’s no longer a choice between fast, healthy, tasty or cheap — you can have them all.

New chains are springing up across the U.S, from Taziki’s, offering made-from-scratch Mediterranean cuisine, to salad and grain boxes chain Sweetgreen, to Manhattan-based Dig Inn. They all tie into the healthy trend, which encompasses more than just low-fat foods.

“Today’s customer not only wants the higher-quality, locally sourced product, but also wants a unique experience,” says Justin Greider, VP, Agency Lead at JLL in the U.S. “The Facebook effect of posting a delicious dish at a local restaurant is a far more powerful social status symbol than checking in at Applebee’s.”

Grabbing a healthy bite

Fast casual has been a strong growth segment of the U.S. food and beverage retail sector in recent years, blending elements of the quick-service restaurants from chains such as McDonald’s – think take-out options and immediate service – with design features borrowed from traditional casual dining establishments. Typically you’ll find Wi-Fi, unique artwork, and pleasant ambient lighting in a fresh casual restaurant — in other words, a home-away-from-home environment in the likes of Chipotle and Zaxby’s.

“Traditional quick service restaurants (QSR) and fast casual chains have worked to create consistent, streamlined experiences that are the same from Toledo to Boston to Los Angeles,” says Greider. “As fresh casual chains expand, they often have different restaurant design, different menus, and even varied concepts from one location to the next. But ultimately they’re all trying to provide an experience through their food, atmosphere, and service.”

It’s been a successful formula with two decades of double digit growth and $34 billion in sales in 2015, according to Restaurant Business.

But now with the focus on socially responsible, GMO-free, natural or organic foods that contain no artificial ingredients, especially among Millennials, the fast casual sector is evolving to include chains catering for this growing demand. “Consumers love fresh casual dining options as it satisfies on a number of levels; it is food that tastes good, is healthy, supports local farmers and artisans, is created by a chef (who is usually local), and is in a unique setting with a high level of service,” explains Greider.

And existing fast casual brands are taking notice – not just in adapting their menus but their whole business strategy.

“Pei Wei is an interesting group that has evolved their fast casual into more of a fresh casual with a much greater emphasis on healthy alternatives, fresh ingredients — especially seafood options — and a revamped décor to highlight this change,” Greider adds.

The future of fresh casual

With new names entering the market, the sector is evolving quickly. “The fresh casual category is still early in its development, so there are few chains that have proven to be successful. However, most are still smaller groups looking to break through,” says Greider.

The challenge for many fresh casual restaurants with big aspiration is creating an appeal that extends beyond their local area. “The unique, local experience demonstrated by Theo’s in Portland, Oregon, for example — doesn’t scale easily,” says Greider.

“The key thing to watch as this category evolves is how brands that are successful are able to grow to a larger scale while maintaining the uniqueness that is their appeal without sacrificing the local feel and crafted menu that has fed their success. It is likely we will see some standardization start to emerge as smaller groups strive for growth,” he concludes.

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