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Fast-casual restaurants increase in popularity

Dining sector reshapes landscape, offers nutritious, customizable eating options, meets needs of many
Art+by+Cherianne+Yoon
Art by Cherianne Yoon

The familiar, tantalizing aroma of refried beans and spiced, peppery chicken hitting the sizzling grill greets freshman Melody Xu and a few of her friends as they walk into Chipotle, ready to order. She steps forward to the assembly line, where an employee begins to guide Xu along the counter, scooping various vegetables and proteins up into a bowl along the way.
Fast-casual restaurant chains such as Chipotle, which say they offer fresher ingredients with limited service, have expanded steadily since 2007, as shown in a 2023 Statista Research Department graph.
Despite both fast-casual and fast-food restaurants marketing their quick service and low prices, fast-casual restaurants tend to focus on healthier ingredients and customization, while also incorporating some aspects of casual restaurants like dine-in service.
According to a 2023 Allied Market Research article, the fast-casual restaurant market share is estimated to grow by 55.4 billion from 2022 to 2027. Xu said she appreciates how fast-casual restaurants offer more nutritious options.
“Fast-casual restaurants offer a lot of healthier options, such as vegetables or more protein, and I really appreciate that because I think living a healthy lifestyle is really important,” Xu said.
Barbara Castiglia, an Executive Editor for Modern Restaurant Management, an online publication focused on covering the restaurant industry, said fast-casual restaurants are centered around customization.
“They are more focused on fresh products and personalization,” Castiglia said. “They definitely appeal to people who are interested in the ingredients that they’re putting in their body. You have the menu items, but then it’s customizable, and there’s a transparency to it.”
Xu also said the ability to customize her meals is an important factor in her choice of restaurants.
“Personalization gives people a say in what they want to eat,” Xu said. “Especially nowadays with so much in the world where it feels like you can do very little to control it, having your own say over food is definitely important.”
World Wrapps owner Matthew Blair said his fast-casual restaurant serves dishes inspired from cuisines from around the world, which helps them stand out against competitors.
“We’re all sorts of things to all sorts of people,” Blair said. “You can come into World Wrapps and get a burrito, a bowl or a wrap. As opposed to just a burger joint or a pizza place, we try to do a lot more than just a specific concept. You can go get a burger at millions of places, but there’s a lot of unique items (at) World Wrapps where you have to come to us.”
Similarly, Danielle Moore, director of communications and marketing at Noodles & Company, said their menu’s diversity attracts guests.
“We pride ourselves on being a pretty uncommon place,” Moore said. “Our diverse and craveable dishes range from Italian to Thai, from indulgent to healthy and offers fresh takes on comfort food classics. I think guests crave quality, convenience and value. Our food is made-to-order and freshly cooked when you order it — it’s an experience that leaves guests feeling satisfied.”
AsianBox CEO Chuck Imerson said his fast-casual restaurant chain tries to buy local ingredients and serve seasonal items.
“Local sourcing is something we try to strive for,” Imerson said. “Locality and seasonality translates to (ingredients) being more affordable (for us), which then becomes more affordable for the customer, so it’s a win-win.”
Not only do many fast-casual restaurants market their fresh ingredients and personalization, they also have a unique service model. Castiglia said fast-casual restaurants have dine-in options, online ordering and an assembly line, all of which are distinctive from traditional restaurants.
“They meet a lot of needs for a lot of different people,” Castiglia said. “Because there is an assembly line type of way of doing things, it’s very trainable and easy to run. They’re also leading the way with different automations and finding ways of doing things to be very efficient, because a lot of it is built on efficiency.”
Castiglia also said COVID-19 hit all restaurants hard, forcing them to adapt in new ways.
“The food industry prior to the pandemic was not necessarily known as being a tech innovator, and then it turned to tech as a necessity,” Castiglia said. “(Technology) was a big savior for helping (restaurants) just stay alive, like QR code menus. That was something that fell out of favor but came back because, all of a sudden, people didn’t want to touch a menu. (Restaurants) saw the returns and the necessity, so they’re more willing to invest in technology now.”
And Moore said Noodles & Company has continued working on improving ordering efficiency through their app even after the pandemic.
“We know guests are more likely to complete an order if the process is seamless, so we continue to focus on making sure our digital platform is a great experience,” Moore said. “We utilize social media for top-of-funnel brand awareness and engagement. There are always challenges in the restaurant world, but that is what makes it exciting for those of us who love bringing people together over food.”
Imerson said that as fast-casual restaurants experiment with technology and grow in popularity, he thinks many will begin to incorporate parts of fast-food models and vice versa.
“Consumers are looking to be able to order more efficiently,” Imerson said. “It’s a faster experience (in fast-casual restaurants), but you’re still getting a high quality product. You’re going to see fast food restaurants increase the quality of some of their items, and then you’re going to see the fast-casuals try to be more efficient with the service model.”
Regardless of how both restaurant models change, Castiglia said fast-casual restaurants won’t overtake fast-food.
“The smart brands are always innovative, and they’re always looking for how they could understand their guests better,” Castiglia said. “They feed off one another and make each other better through that innovation. There’s a place for everyone in the marketplace.”

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Cynthia Huang, Staff Writer
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