On Foodable Insight Series: How Do Fast Casual Phenoms Stand Out?

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Fast casual is undisputedly the poster child of growth within the restaurant industry. Five years ago, the segment had barely begun to thrive, with only a handful of concepts making their names, but now more fast casual champions are entering the playing field. In fact, just two years ago, fast casual sales were reported to have skyrocketed 600 percent since 1999. With this rapid expansion and with the influx of concepts, why have consumers embraced this segment and how do operators stand out?

In this  "On Foodable Insight Series" episode, industry experts explore that while the segment was initially known to be dominated by better-burger ideas and craft pizza, there is a hatching success for concepts focused on the chicken sector. The consumer eats two times as much chicken as any other protein and has a reputation of being the healthier alternative after fish. It's no surprise that is a growing arena for fast casuals in order to meet the consumer demand. 

Sean Kennedy, president and CEO of Cowboy Chicken, said his brand sets itself apart because they do not fry their products. Their chicken is artisan, cooked naturally over a hickory wood-burning fire, and their service target time is four minutes from point-of-sale to delivery. Astonishing, but how much headroom improvement is left in the fast casual space?

"You know, I think there's a lot of room for innovation. I mean, now you have, you guys term it, Fast Casual 2.0, which is some chef-driven — still in the fast casual space — concept development. What we're seeing is more focused menus, we're seeing people really specializing in what they do. I really think there's a lot of room to grow with a lot of specialization out there, and I think the fast casual space...is here to stay, and I definitely think that's where all the action is going to be the next 10, 15 years," Kennedy said.

From an ingredient standpoint in the chicken sector, Aaron Noveshen, founder of consulting group The Culinary Edge and soon-to-open concept Starbird, said his team focused not only on better-quality, but sustainability, making it a mission for the brand to be part of the environmental solution instead of the problem.

"Parents want to feed their kids a better product," Noveshen said. "It's clear that nurturing and understanding where these ingredients are from, that they're not going to harm yourself or your kids, is really an important part of that."