Important Takeaways from the Third Annual Fast Casual Trends and Directions Conference

Fast Casual Trends TV host Paul Barron interviews Chef Brian Duffy during the FCTD event at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago.  | Foodable WebTV Network

Fast Casual Trends TV host Paul Barron interviews Chef Brian Duffy during the FCTD event at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago. | Foodable WebTV Network

At the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago yesterday, leaders in the fast casual restaurant industry gathered together to inspire, educate and network at the 3rd Annual Fast Casual Trends & Directions Conference (FCTD). In a room of about 50+ executives, experts took the stage to provide their insight on a wide variety of things — from menu innovations and growth plans to social media currency and technology. Needless to say, every round table in the room left with more motivation and knowledge to continue their stride in the fastest growing industry segment that Millennials are known to frequent. As a bonus, NFL Hall-of-Famer Marcus Allen wrapped up the event with a vulnerable speech on leadership, connecting the idea of teamwork, success and opportunity.

Hosted by the National Restaurant Association in partnership with Technomic & DigitalCoCo, FCTD provides several stats, tips and insights that are super niche to the fast casual arena, but can also act, in some ways, as a framework for any restaurant executive. FCTD is an intimate, invitation-only event for fast casual movers and shakers, so for those who were not able to attend, we’ve got you covered on some major takeaways below.

And the Data Says...

Technomic EVP Darren Tristano further confirmed that the state of the fast casual segment is not slowing down any time in the near future: 35% of limited-service restaurant dollar growth will be represented by fast casuals. Unsurprisingly, Better Burgers are topping subsegment growth at 10%, with Specialty concepts also at 10%, followed by Mexican (9%) and Bakery/Cafe (8%). Interestingly, chain growth is now reaching beyond large, affluent consumer trade areas and are reaching into urban, suburban and rural markets. Local has become so important, and this observation definitely speaks to the idea that more fast casuals have adopted local sourcing (or plan to).

A Rubio’s Reinvention

Rebranding, especially for concepts that have been around for quite some time, is super important. Reinventing yourself as consumer demands change is crucial to keeping afloat. Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill is doing just that with a new development of Rubio’s Seafood Grill, which will feature more chef-driven fare, including sustainable seafood — 85% of the menu is sustainable — and experiential menu drivers that have never been done in a fast casual concept before. Marc Simon (CEO) and Ralph Rubio (Founder) both took the stage to represent the brand, and reiterated that when taking risks, it’s important to stay true to your concept’s core values. Rubio’s advice for future operators? “You must hire great people, have passion, and a willingness to keep evolving.”

McAlister’s Take on Marketing & Catering

Frank Paci of McAlister’s Deli made some great points that not all operators think about, but that seem so obvious after-the-fact. Example: Marketing is what brings people into a restaurant the first time, but it’s things beyond that — like service — that turn them into loyal customers. Another aspect we love about this brand is that they are focusing on telling their brand story to connect with consumers. This, of course, is an approach that Millennials — who can sense BS from a mile away — love.

McAlister’s offers catering, which is not for all fast casuals. Paci stressed that those looking to integrate catering must commit FULLY to it, almost like a completely separate line of business. At times, depending on your concept, this can mean changing the menu around to accommodate to the nature of catering (offering more cold sandwiches versus hot ones, for example).

A Taste of Menu Innovation

“Most people, when training chefs, don’t understand that you need to connect the dots of why a dish works one way versus another,” said Flavor Consultant Mark Miller. Joined by Panera EVP Scott Davis and Consultant Mark Brezinski, and moderated by Celebrity Chef Brian Duffy, the panel discussed menu innovations and the background of consumers’ connection to food in a new light: “Food reflects who we want to be and who we are,” said Miller. When it comes to connecting customers with your menu, “it’s all about the individual ingredients,” said Davis. And whether considering calories or sustainable practices, the three agreed that each generation defines “healthy” differently. But what struck most interesting was when Miller stressed the need for behavioral economics for restaurants. What does this mean? Though he didn’t expand on it much, consider how important the how and the why of consumers’ decision-making is. What drives customers to do the things they do in relation to your brand? Think of all the opportunity that comes with this data. Think of how much you can do with drilling into the context of purchasing decisions — to be one step ahead of the customer and understand their needs in order to deliver above expectation. Now that’s loyalty.

Until Next Year...

It was refreshing to listen to these fast casual innovators who are willing to take a chance on reinvention and push the envelope — even a little bit — to connect better with their guests. The restaurant business continues to move forward — with fast casual at an even more rapid pace — whether you’re on-board or not. As a wise man by the name of Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

Don’t be a follower.

For more on fast casual insights, make sure to tune into Fast Casual Trends TV and Fast Casual Nation. You can also pre-purchase our full Annual Fast Casual Social 100 Report here.