Dish Society Proves ‘Flex-Casual’ Model Could Compete With Fast Casual

There was once a time when fast-casual concepts were the new kids on the block — fresh, innovative, and different. While this segment has certainly captured the hearts (and wallets) of many — a love affair especially with Millennials — the marketplace has become inevitably saturated. Fast casual is a proven model, and is even on its second wave, known as Fast Casual 2.0 or “fine casual,” which reflects chef-driven concepts rooted in sustainable offerings and local partnerships.

But what’s next? If the success of Houston-based Dish Society is any indicator, it could be flex-casual. “We offer counter service for breakfast, lunch and brunch, and we do full-service for dinner,” says Aaron Lyons, Dish Society’s founder.

The transformation takes place at 3:30 p.m. each day, wherein a host, bartender, and full-service servers come in to start their shift. The menu also changes a bit between the two day parts, but not drastically. Dish Society’s menu changes seasonally and the space is outfitted with an open kitchen.

Lyon initially intended for Dish Society to be purely fast casual, so what changed?

“The more I looked at the market, the more I studied other brands, the more I spent a lot of time sitting in fast-casual restaurants, I noticed that lunch is the obvious low-hanging fruit — I mean, that’s where all of these fast casuals make a lot of their money,” says Lyon. “But during dinner, I noticed they were just completely dead.”

Lyon wanted to change that. And to better communicate this hybrid model, he made sure the 12 beer taps and large wine rack at Dish Society were visible to guests front-and-center.

“A guest doesn’t necessarily want to wait in line for dinner,” says Lyon. “They’re not as much as in a hurry, maybe they’re with their family, they want to sit down… a lot of them want to be waited on, but a lot of them still don’t want to spend a lot of money.”

Offering a lower price point is where Dish Society differentiates itself from the competition of nearby casual restaurants that also offer full-service dinner. 

In regards to creating a new, hybrid model, Lyon says he understands the reluctance operators may have regarding this transitioning model, but as Lyon says, most of the changes are just cosmetic, like dressing up the uniform a bit more at night and switching out cashiers with servers. “The kitchen operations is actually a little bit easier at night because it’s not ‘blow and go’ [like] during lunch; it’s not as high volume,” says Lyon. “So they have time to really focus and concentrate on the plating. We can run it with fewer people.”

Lyon believes flex-casual is the next step in that mid-space between fast-casual and casual dining. “There’s a need for it…I don’t think fast casual has necessarily worn out its welcome, but it’s become very saturated, people ‘get’ it, it’s not novel anymore,” he says. “That’s now the new norm. That’s now the thing that people expect.”