Data Predicts the Future of Fast Casual

A lot of fast casual insights were revealed at this year’s annual Fast Casual Trends & Directions Conference, hosted by Technomic with Foodable sister company DigitalCoCo as media sponsor. What’s the current state of fast casual and where is it going?

Fast Casual in the Social Media ’sphere

For the first time ever, fast casual brands are seeing a decline in consumer engagement on social media — at least with the Millennial demographic, those who fall between the ages of 25-34. To be more specific, consumer social engagement with the Top 25 fast casual brands went down 9%. Data from the Restaurant Social Media Index (RSMI) also shows that, despite this decline, overall consumer sentiment has gone up 39.2% and sales continue to grow. In fact, social consumer location transactions have increased by almost 50% in the past 24 months. 

And while not as many Millennials are interacting on social with their favorite fast casual brands directly, the biggest engagement vehicles for social consumers continue to rise on photo & video engagement. Food porn, anyone? Check this out: the consumption on these vehicles for restaurant content has increased a whopping 172% in the past 24 months! If your restaurant doesn’t already have a heavily visual content strategy on social, it’s time to step up.

On which social platform are most consumers engaging with fast casual brands? Facebook beats out Twitter in that aspect by almost double.

But aside from social and out-of-store engagement, what does the future hold for the fast casual segment? Apparently a lucrative one, with projected sales for 2019 at $62 Billion.

Consumers Are Crazy for Customization

According to Technomic’s Darren Tristano, the evolutionary trends in fast casual that we will continue to see are proliferation of delivery (think Postmates x Chipotle); increasing entry from full-service operators (which has been a hot topic); increasing use of technology (Panera’s ‘fast lane’ kiosks are a great example); and build-your-own (BYO) concepts.

As it turns out, BYO is the sweet spot for fast casuals. Though only 22.5% of fast casuals offer build-your-own, these concepts have experienced double the growth of non-BYOs. The numbers don’t lie: consumers are crazy for customization — from their meal to the way they order it.

Looking to the Future

Tristano also relayed that fast casual restaurants will outpace QSRs in terms of growth, with the most growth in the specialty segment at 14%, followed by sandwiches at 11%. The most underserved specialty subsegment is Mediterranean at 33% followed by Healthy fare at 30%, a close margin. Pizza and BBQ follow at 23% and 21%, respectively.

Focus Brands Group President Paul Damico says fast casual’s biggest competitive advantage is the quality of food. But in the next few years, he predicts it will change drastically to fit consumer demands of eating ‘clean.’ This may make it even more difficult for full-service operators to mimic or even create fast casual concepts. According to The Habit Burger’s CMO, Matt Hood, brands like Macaroni Grill who are trying to seep into the fast casual game will not succeed if they do not stay true to their brand. “Restaurants need to stop chasing trends,” he says. “You can’t just say you’re going to be fast casual.” And he’s right: brand DNA is what people connect with. If you don’t have that connection with your consumer, there’s nothing to hold on to in terms of loyalty.

And it’s loyalty that keeps Hood up at night, saying it’s important for The Habit Burger to evolve in the future to stay relevant with consumers without changing the core of the brand. It’s important, he says, to not become stale by doing the same things. And with that came some valuable advice for not just fast casual operators, but for all members of the foodservice industry: “Nothing good happens when you stand still on the battlefield.”