Navigating the crossover: Fast casualization of the restaurant industry

| by Judy Mottl
Navigating the crossover: Fast casualization of the restaurant industry

Michelle Strong, CMO, LRS; Jim Greco, president and CEO at Pilgrim Holdings and COO for Newk’s Eatery; Tom Sacco, president and CEO, Homestyle Dining and John Featherston, senior director, new ventures at Chick-fil-A.

Quick service restaurants and full-service food operators aiming to transform into a fast casual dining establishment must go into the undertaking with specific knowledge and strategy as customers are seeking, and expecting, a much different experience.

And, as with any dining experience, diners expect quality food and quality service.

"Casual and cuisine can live together. It’s about being culinary driven, exceptional hospitality and not just about how we greet and treat guests," Jim Greco, president and CEO at Pilgrim Holdings and COO for Newk's Eatery, told attendees at the Fast Casual Executive Summit in late October.

Greco, along with John Featherston, senior director, new ventures at Chick-fil-A, and Tom Sacco, president and CEO, Homestyle Dining, served as panelists for the session "Crossover: The Fast Casualization of the Restaurant Industry," moderated by Michelle Strong, CMO, Long Range Systems (LRS).

"We are obsessed with discovering new ingredients and dedicated to personal service," said Greco.

Transitioning from one food service approach to another is nothing new for Sacco as he's been in the restaurant business for decades, serving in a corporate strategy leadership role for the Bonanza and Ponderosa restaurant brands over 50 years ago. They were the first fast casual steakhouse concepts. He helped launched Cole's Backyard Grill five years ago. The concept is focused on the young millennial dining crowd.

"Fast forward to now and the evolution in the dining room has seen a relaunch and we saw an opportunity to redo what we've been doing," explained Sacco, noting he's now involved in splitting the company's legacy dining operations apart again into new approaches.

At Chick-fil-A, the fast casual restaurant philosophy involves a great deal of internal debate and partnership across the entire business, shared Featherston.

"If you know who you are you know what to do," said Featherston, noting it's all about exploring and discovering ways to "express who we are," and realizing diners want "fast, fast experience with reasonable prices and a good value."

"We don't stand still and we are determined to be lean and we watch the competitors," Featherston said.

The one thing about the fast casual environment, noted Saco, is there are fewer rules than in the full-service approach.

"It is more about speed but also premium quality food in a short time as consumers are very price sensitive," he said.

Stating all fast casual operations are experiencing the same business competitive pressures, Greco said operators looking to move into fast casual have to pay close attention to pricing.

"You have to realize consumers are stressed with costs," he said, adding, "today's guests are more emotional about food than a car."

Featherston echoed that sentiment, noting that when it comes to pricing "any increase must merit the increase," and said product decisions are just as important as pricing in the fast casual operations.

"People want less than six ingredients," he said.

In regard to menu offerings, Featherston noted the biggest challenge in fast casual operations is avoiding what he calls "menu creep."

"We decided to stick to being best at boneless chicken," he noted.

But one of the most unique changes with food and menu, notes Sacco, is what's taken place given the super foods being touted by the health-conscious dining crowd.

"In the 1980s we used to decorate our salad bars (at Bonanza) with kale," he recalled. "It's a different world. Now it's part of the salad bar offerings."

Such changes illustrate the transformation in dining patrons' needs and a big key to success, said Featherston, is knowing what the consumer wants.

"You must meet their specific needs and know what a customer wants before they even get to your place," he said.

Declaring there "are enough diners out there for all of us [fast casual, QSRs, full-service restaurants]," Sacco shared his view on the future of fast casual operations.

"This is a dynamic fun exciting time. You just have to stay true to who you are while pushing the envelope," he said. "This is about evolution and not a revolution."

Topics: Customer Experience, Fast Casual Executive Summit, Specialty Stores, Trends / Statistics

Judy Mottl

Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

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