The Secret Sauce to Fast Casual Restaurants’ Success

By Vladik Rikhter

McDonalds Big Mac Special Sauce

Q: What do college students, stay-at-home parents and corporate executives have in common?

A: You’ll find them all in fast casual restaurants on their lunch hour.

Fast casual restaurants are convenient and an affordable option that places emphasis on fresh ingredients. It’s the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry, and with total annual sales of $38.5 billion last year (Technomic), the numbers speak for themselves.

Denver has become the capital of fast casual innovation. It makes sense since it’s also the No. 1 destination city for Millennials. The top two chains listed in FastCasual.com’s Top 100 Movers & Shakers of 2014 -- Smashburger and Chipotle – call this city home.

The fast food industry, lead by burger giant McDonald’s has faced a steady stream of backlash over the last few years primarily due to health concerns, so it’s interesting that a burger concept is the leader of fast casual. What’s even more interesting is the fact that Smashburger’s CEO is a former Taco Bell and Pizza Hut executive. All three of these chains have something in common: menu innovation outside of the traditional fast food hamburger joint.

Smashburger scores big on the better-burger concept. The chain offers certified angus beef burgers and rosemary-and-garlic seasoned fries, and even your vegetarian friend can order a fresh salad.

According to Smashburger founder Tom Ryan, the three must-haves of fast casual are fresh ingredients, friendly service and a high-energy atmosphere. Ethnic flavors, from Thai to Greek, lend themselves to fresh ingredients and flavors. The key is to make delicious menu items that put your customers in a “food coma” -- not have an atmosphere that does it for you!

See Also: Top 3 Franchised Restaurants Trends for 2015

Going forward, Ryan says, fast casual’s main challenge will be delivering food as quickly as fast food chains, if not faster. He also predicts that fast casual restaurants will have an impact on full-service restaurants. We’re already seeing it happen as some restaurants are offering guests more affordable menu options and the option of ordering from the counter.

Brand Consistency is Key

The fact remains that every fast casual champion -- no matter if they’re selling burgers or a plate of noodles -- is a master of brand consistency across the franchise. If you walk into any Chipotle in the country, you’re going to expect the same ordering experience and the same quality of food.

The next time you visit a fast casual restaurant, take notes. Observe their process and see what makes them both consistent and efficient.

Remember that every one of these chains started with a unique concept that was perfected over time. The sauces may be secret, but it always gets bottled!

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