Consumer Trends

Fast-casual customers are starting to expect a drive-thru

As the lines between fast casual and fast food blur, diners are increasingly expecting quick-service convenience at more-polished limited-service chains, according to a new Technomic consumer report.
Shake Shack drive-thru
Photo courtesy Shake Shack

Fast-casual diners, much like their quick-service compatriots, are beginning to expect drive-thrus.

What was once solely the domain of fast-food restaurants is now becoming table stakes at fast casuals, according to a new consumer report from Restaurant Business sister firm, Technomic.

Forty-five percent of fast-casual diners say they now place orders at the drive-thru, the same percentage who say they order at the counter, the “Future of LSR: Fast food and fast casual” survey found.

Perhaps most significant: A quarter of fast-casual customers said they expect their drive-thru usage to increase and 51% said they expected it would stay the same.

It’s yet another indication that the lines between quick-service and fast-casual chains are blurring.

Fast casuals were conceived as a higher-end alternative to fast food, with elevated fare and service, and have since grown into a $53.1 billion segment (still less than a quarter of all quick-service sales), according to Technomic.

But the pandemic, and before it, the growth of digital technology, muddied those distinctions.

Chipotle Mexican Grill introduced its first drive-thru, the Chipotlane, in 2019. Since then, the order-ahead, pick-up lanes have become wildly successful and much copied, with fast casuals including Shake Shack, Sweetgreen, Fuzzy’s Taco Shop and many more getting into the drive-thru business.

Among fast-casual customers, 22% percent said they consider drive-thrus to be a non-negotiable expectation, saying they’ll dine elsewhere if they’re not available, Technomic found. And 35% said they expected drive-thrus at fast casuals but wouldn’t go elsewhere or decrease their visits if there wasn’t one.

In addition to convenience, fast-casual diners, much more so than quick-service ones, are looking for a dining experience. Twenty-seven percent of fast-casual customers said they were looking to treat themselves (compared with 22% of fast-food customers) and 27% of fast-casual diners said they “feel good about eating the food at these restaurants,” compared to just 16% of fast-food patrons, Technomic found.

Being in the mood for a small treat means fast-casual customers will bear more price increases than fast-food diners.

The average fast-casual order is now $12, up $2 since 2020, while the average spend at a fast-food restaurant is now $9, up $1 from 2020, Technomic found. Fast-casual customers said menu prices would need to increase 15% for them to decrease their visits, compared to 10% for quick-service consumers.

Given higher food and wage costs, chains around the country have raised their prices—sometimes by double-digit percentages.

Given those higher prices, 30% of fast-casual customers (and 22% of fast-food ones) said they were dining in less often and 20% of fast-casual diners said they were ordering takeout less often (compared to 22% of quick-service customers).

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