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How fast casual is changing QSR

Used to be, quickservice meant a cheeseburger, some roast beef on a bun, or a slice of pizza, consumed from a molded plastic chair bolted to the floor, under lighting better suited for FBI interrogations...if the guest opted to eat in at all.  But thanks to that pesky paradigm-shifter called fast-casual, now we've got pecans, apples, and grapes in QSR chicken-salad sandwiches, and smiling teens running them out to the tables.

Having taken considerable pains to upscale their menu and service, quickservice and fast-casual chains are increasingly setting their sights on design to differentiate themselves. Say goodbye to faux wood and watered-down Styx on the Muzak—now it's fireplaces and stone tabletops, open kitchens and modern art, often to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars per unit. Whether they classify themselves as quickservice, fast-casual, or a hybrid of both, it seems everyone's scrambling to enhance the overall guest experience, encourage them to sit and eat, and nab their dollars in the process.

"Different chains are taking it to different levels, but across the board, everyone's addressing their design," says George Krotonsky, president of fast-casual concept Wild Noodles. He oversaw a recent redesign, which included an open kitchen and smoother flow from door to dining room, he credits with goosing revenues as much as 50%.

Redesigning 20,000-plus units is no easy feat, yet quickservice pacesetter Subway is in on the game as well. The sub chain plans to have its so-called Tuscany decor—featuring lots of wood, stone, and brick, and designed to call to mind an Italian country market—rolled out systemwide in five years' time.

"People of any age respond to warm and friendly colors like gold and orange," says Subway director of creative services and decor Ruth Woyciesjes, who adds that the redesign not only boosts sales, but also permits Subway to open in up-market retail centers that previously had spurned them.

Wild Noodles and Subway are hardly alone in their attempts to (up)scale new heights. Following are several chains, concepts ranging from premium coffee to QSR burgers to rest-stop full-service, that have learned you don't have to be fine-dining to be fancy.

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