On Foodable Insight Series: Premium Fast Casuals Pulling From Casual Dining

Fast casual has already made its mark on the industry as a game-changing segment — and the fastest-growing one the industry has ever seen — as the all-in-one answer to the consumer need for speed and better-for-you ingredients. In a previous episode of "On Foodable Insight Series," Foodable discussed the innovation of fast casual phenoms, but how does fast casual continue to evolve? Is it becoming higher class? Moving from a simple step above quick-service restaurants to upscale fast casuals, to now chef-inspired fast casuals, there's no denying that this segment continues to defy the odds.

Paul Barron sits down with Oath Craft Pizza President and COO Rick Wolf, and co-founders of Mendocino Farms, company CEO Mario Del Pero and company President Ellen Chen, to see how their own philosophy of connecting the best farmers and artisan food to their industry is something that is being seen across all of fast casual. How does the consumer psyche play a role into this? 

Elevating the Fast Casual Dining Experience

According to Del Pero, fast casual was initially a QSR environment, but with better food. The dining room, the ordering process, and all those other elements were identifiable with quick service, but he and Chen wanted to pull more from casual dining.

"That was one of the things that we kind of wanted to blur the lines, and this was even from 12 years ago...mimicking that of casual dining, where if you come into our restaurant, you're not going straight to a counter," Chen said, adding that a host instead guides the guest through the ordering process and the menu. "It is chef-driven, so we want to make sure they are able to highlight the ingredients, highlight the farmers. And so from there, you're really going through this process of where once you pay, it's literally like you're in casual dining."

At Mendocino Farms, the staff runs the food to the guest and busses tables, elevating the fast casual dining experience. Why are consumers willing to take the leap up in price point for this service?

"If I actually think I'm getting a $16 sandwich, and I actually understand that the quality of ingredients are of a $16 or a $14 sandwich at $10 [the Mendocino Farms price point], and now you're giving me this incredible environment, now it's a fantastic value proposition," Del Pero said.

Consumer Expectation

"I think overall consumers have very high expectations of brands these days, not only from the type of quality of products you serve, but they're really looking for unique flavor profiles. They want to experiment, try things different," Wolf said. "One thing we always talk about is create a cravable product. Something that when people eat it, they say, 'I'm amazed.'"

These trends actually describe how Oath itself came about, the company founder determined to elevate the pizza experience by inventing a new crust: grilling it on one side and searing it with olive oil on the other. It is a personification of chef-driven pizza.

Want to learn how these premium fast casual players are opening up the discussion of sustainability, craft pizza, craft beverage, and more in the industry? Watch the full episode.