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Here's a tip: Fast-casual lacks definition

A group of panelists at an analysts' conference here couldn't seem to agree on a strict definition for fast-casual, said to be the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry. A group of panelists at an analysts' conference here couldn't seem to agree on a strict definition for fast-casual, said to be the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry.

But all agreed that they want to be in the category.

Brinker International executive VP Starlette Johnson, McDonald's director of corporate strategy Jordan Krolick, Carrols Corp. concept chief John Haywood, and industry veteran Lane Cardwell all debated what fast-casual means and what it rules out.

Technomic estimates that fast-casual is a $6 billion segment, led by bakery-cafes with a 20% share, followed by home-meal replacement and Mexican restaurants, with 15% each.

While consumers are flocking to fast-casual, food quality and service practices vary widely across the industry, making it difficult to craft precise definitions.

Pasta Pomodoro, for instance, is said to be fast-casual, yet sends waiters to deliver food to patrons' tables. Does that move it into the casual-dining category?

"Pasta Pomodoro is at the lowest end of casual-dining and the highest end of quick-casual," was Krolick's assessment. "How you differentiate it from Red Robin [Gourmet Burgers], I don't know. The waitress service component pushes it to the border of casual-dining."

Cardwell added that tipping is a key element separating fast-casual from casual-dining. Noodles, a well-known fast-casual player, posts a sign in its restaurants indicating a "no-tipping zone."

Panelists came up with terms like "fast-food plus" and "quick-casual minus" to refer to concepts that straddle the lines between the various categories.

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