Fast-casual: Doing well, but room for improvement

June 25 2014

While the fast-casual concept in Canada is seeing strong growth, there is still room for improvement - not complacency - from operators in this sector of the foodservice industry. 

A new report from Technomic reveals the sector's sales leapt by 13.9 per cent in 2013, which is encouraging news for those fans of this style of establishment. This is actually more than the US' figure of 11 per cent. 

It transpired three of the quickest growing limited-service restaurants in Canada are fast-casuals - Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Thai Express and Mucho Burrito - which is encouraging for this sector as a whole. 

However, while one in four Canadians questioned in the food research firm's poll revealed they ate at fast-casuals at least once a week, 40 per cent of those in the US said the same. 

In addition to this, nearly three-fifths (58 per cent) of respondents said they went to fast-food restaurants the same amount, with this figure being marginally higher (64 per cent) for those in the US.

So, not only do Canadians tend to prefer fast-food restaurants quite considerably, the number who do enjoy frequenting fast-casuals is notably higher in the US.

Particularly as the economy starts to find its feet again, the onus is on foodservice operators to make their establishment stand out from the crowd. 

Technomic highlighted one way in which restaurateurs can do this - by focusing on providing substantially better flavour and taste to the food they provide.

A poll revealed there was barely any differentiation between how consumers rated both fast-casuals and fast-food restaurants. For the former, 90 per cent of those polled declared the flavour and taste to be good or very good, while 89 per cent said the same for the latter.

While the two concepts may seem to be on equal footing, there is an opportunity for fast-casual eateries to race away from the pack. This type of restaurant can make the most of not only the quality of its ingredients, but also the freshness of its produce and how it can be easily customized. 

Is ambiance important?

It's important to remember the ambiance of an establishment can go a long way to making a place unique and this is especially the case for fast-casuals. Almost half (45 per cent) said they had the expectation the atmosphere would be favourable, whereas notably fewer (32 per cent) adopted the same requirement of fast-food restaurants.

As two out of five said they'd return to an establishment that had a positive vibe, this is another area for restaurateurs in the fast-casual sector to capitalize on. 

Ways to do this include thinking carefully about the choice of music, the lighting, any decorations around the establishment, the friendliness of the waiting staff and any special, signature touches. 

It is important to note that the food is the primary reason for patrons choosing to go to a particular restaurant, but operators must not neglect the other factors that can be instrumental in defining a consumer's overall experience. For instance, this is highlighted by a restaurant in Calgary offering a $5 discount for well-behaved children, as sometimes screaming toddlers can adversely affect numerous individuals' meals.