When “fast casual” restaurants first appeared in the mid 1990’s, no one knew it would be anything more than a fad. But from 1999 to today, the fast casual segment
has grown by 550% – ten times the rate of the restaurant industry as a whole.
While the definition of fast casual isn’t exact, the overwhelming emphasis is on the guest experience and the way tastes are evolving. This includes:
- Fresh and tasty choices that are also nutritious
- The sense of contributing to a cause or the greater good (such as sustainable, local farming)
- A connection – being part of a social, global or electronic community
QSRs (quick service restaurants), on the other hand, typically lack these characteristics. They’ve always been centered around rapid preparation in quantity, low prices and quick customer throughput. But many of the big-name fast food joints – like McDonalds, Burger King and Taco Bell – are moving to change that by adopting technology.
So, is “going digital” enough to sway diners and lure them back to fast food?
Going fast digital
Digital technology in fast food takes many forms.
Video menu screens provide attractive, full-color images of popular items. They can display different menus at specific times of day, like breakfast or “late-night” menus and often post weekly or daily specials. They can even entertain the kids – take for example the Burger King chicken that squawks from screen to screen, promoting “chicken fries.”
Mobile apps and websites also allow customers to order ahead and simply pick up their food at the counter or via the drive-thru. Interactive kiosks allow customers to order and pay without going up to the counter.
Sounds pretty great, right? But is digital ordering enough to compete with the benefits of fast casual?
Beyond ordering: the whole experience
True, the convenience of ordering online is a big draw. It’s expected. It empowers the customer, increases satisfaction and reduces waste. It also eliminates printing and posting promotional materials each time the menu changes.
But fast casual isn’t just about technology and online ordering. It’s about the overall guest experience. Fresh and wholesome choices. A real story behind what you’re eating. A relaxing atmosphere with unobtrusive table service. These are important to the diner, and as convenient as they may be, digital ordering apps and menu boards don’t address them.
Addressing the guest experience
Some QSRs are working to go that extra mile. For example, McDonalds is experimenting with a “Create Your Taste” menu. This allows the customer complete freedom to invent their own gourmet burger – and it uses a kiosk to do it. In addition, the chain is already refreshing its dining room to be more inviting and less “plastic.”
Then there is an operational hurdle, however. McDonalds created its kitchen layout for assembly lines of quarter pounders – not custom orders. This is a big shift, but an essential one.
So, is it enough?
Digital signboards, kiosks and mobile ordering apps – these should fit into QSRs well enough. There’s no question these will appeal to customers.
But while diners expect technology as part of the experience, the allure of fast casual goes beyond that. To compete, QSRs have to do more than add a digital menu.
For some that means significant challenges – and investments – in their operations. Most fast food kitchens aren’t set up for custom orders and most don’t have table runners or relaxing dining areas… YET.
Only time will tell. If concepts like McDonalds gourmet do pan out – with kiosks, digital payments, table location and more – fast casuals may have some competition on their hands.
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Michelle Strong is chief marketing officer at LRS and an advocate for meaningful customer engagement.