Meet the Stars of 'Fast Casual Nation: Changing the Way America Eats'

Fast casual is the dark horse in the race of foodservice. Not only was it the fastest-growing segment in the restaurant and hospitality industry, spiking 550 percent in sales from 1999 to 2014, it was the hero of a true David vs. Goliath story, rising above the quick-service and fast food giants that dominated consumer demand for decades. In the quest for higher-quality ingredients and unique concepts, fast casual began to knock out those titans and became the poster child for others to emulate. 

As a result, the way America eats has changed: diners want better options, better sourcing, and food with better stories. Most of all, they want it fast. That's why Paul Barron, the pioneer credited for coining the term "fast casual," wrote the documentary "Fast Casual Nation: Changing the Way America Eats." Now available on demand, "Fast Casual Nation" follows Barron as he travels around the country to see how the story of fast casual is transforming foodservice one plate at a time.

But who were some of the people he met who helped him chew over this huge societal shift? Who were the champions of fast casual who paved the way and gave us some major food for thought? While many — such as Panera Bread Founder Ron Shaich and Phil Kafarakis, former National Restaurant Association chief innovation & member advancement officer and now president at Specialty Food Association — all wove their stories into the thread of fast casual, let's take a closer look at a few of our film stars, all key leaders and game changers who impacted the future of our food.

Tom Ryan, Co-Founder of Smashburger

how to smash.

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The better burger segment was one of the first ways fast casual innovated foodservice, before there were explorations into Tex-Mex, craft pizza, better-for-you greens, and chicken. Gone are the days where McDonald's burgers sat on a throne of Golden Arches; consumers had beef with fast food and wanted a bite of something juicier.

Tom Ryan, co-founder and current CEO of Smashburger, was one of the first to lead the way in 2007. Using 100-percent Certified Angus Beef, this brand packs each chomp with flavor. Smashburger smashed the quick-service burger competition and sits as one of our Top 25 Fast Casual Brands in our Top 100 Fast Casual Social Brands report. With Ryan — who has a Ph.D. in flavor and fragrance from Michigan State University — at the helm, this isn't surprising.

"Our core menu is really a reflection of how Americans want to eat their burgers," Ryan said, explaining that, for example, while their barbecue burgers are on all of their menu boards, sauces vary by the personality of each region.

"...[It] celebrates something a little more local. Create-your-own is the pressure valve for people who want to go off-road. So our job as stewards of the brand, curators of our recipe, is to always make sure we are constantly looking at our mix numbers, what's working and what's not, and make sure that our core menu continues to be a reflection of what Americans want to eat."  

Anthony Pigliacampo, Co-Founder of Modern Market

Self-proclaimed lover of healthy food, fitness enthusiast, pilot, engineer, and founder of Modern Market? What doesn't Anthony Pigliacampo do?

Alongside co-founder Robert McColgan, the vision for Modern Market (which, by the way, ranked high at No. 12 in our Top 100 Fast Casual Social Brands report) came to life after they noticed how challenging it was to find delicious food made from healthy ingredients...for a reasonable price.

"Eating out resembled voting — choose the least worst option and get on with it. We wanted to change that," they said on their website.

In 2009, they left their jobs and opened up their neighborhood restaurant spot in Boulder, Colo., making it a point to serve artisan dishes without the arrogance, combining scratch-made food with simple counter service. They set out to be the go-to place where paleo, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and "non-dieting" friends could all join together at the same table.

"You know, it took 30 years and two generations to basically teach consumers how to eat out a lot, and that evolution started with your burger concepts...but then you started having all your casual dining players coming into the market...and you're doing all these things, and the consumer is getting used to eating out constantly," Pigliacampo said. "...Fast casual definitely stands on the shoulders of QSR."

Don Fox, CEO of Firehouse Subs

Firehouse Subs certainly heats up the fast casual sector, especially because this big-name brand sits comfortable at No. 4 in our Top 100 Fast Casual Social Brands ranking. And the chief of this firehouse is Don Fox, who has been part of the Firehouse family for more than 13 years. Under his leadership, the brand grew to over 1,045 restaurants across 44 states, Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico.

A few badges and honors decorate his name, including a 2013 Silver Plate Award from the International Food Manufacturers Association (IFMA) and the 2013 National Restaurant Association's Advocacy Leadership Award.

"Having been in the restaurant industry for over 40 years, I have witnessed a lot of change. Before fast casual, it was a distinctly different landscape," Fox said. "You had casual dining, you had fast food, and that pretty well defined foodservice. ...Nothing in between."

"I'm of the genuine belief that the restaurant industry overall benefits if everybody does a great job. I don't subscribe to the theory that we live in a world where it's just a fixed pie...and we're all battling each other for market share. I do think...we collectively do better as an industry," he said. 

Greg Dollarhyde, Former CEO of Veggie Grill and Executive Chairman of Zoë's Kitchen

Talk about some seriously cutting-veg protein 📷: @meatlessinnewyork

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"The opening for fast casual became really pretty obvious in the early '90s, where you saw fast food not really able to get above the quality-price barrier. They were kind of locked into five bucks.... Casual theme kept rising and rising in average check because real estate was getting more expensive, managers were getting more expensive, ...and so this chasm kept opening up," Greg Dollarhyde said, the former CEO of Veggie Grill, one of our Top 25 Fast Casual Social Brands, said.

With almost 40 years of experience, Dollarhyde is a leader in the sector, not only having served as CEO for Veggie Grill, but is also the current CEO and executive chairman of Zoës Kitchen, a restaurant that also ranks high our Top 100 Fast Casual Social Brands report.

He has served as an executive chairman or CEO of eight companies and chief financial officer for two publicly-held restaurants. In his time with Veggie Grill, he spearheaded the raising of more than $50 million in growth capital for the veggie-centric concept. To say he knows a thing or two about fast casual would be an understatement.

"My kids, man, I don't want to pound McDonald's, but they just don't eat that food anymore," Greg Dollarhyde, the former CEO of Veggie Grill, one of our Top 25 Fast Casual Brands, said. "They eat fast casual food. ...They're going to eat that way for the rest of their lives — guaranteed."