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Fast casuals take on dinner

Family meals, popular and profitable now, may be here to stay for some concepts.
Field Goods
Photo courtesy of Fields Good Chicken

As Americans continue to shelter at home, the demand for family meals keeps increasing. Several fast casuals are capitalizing on this trend by creating more dinner-centric menu items for takeout and delivery. Pre-pandemic, the bulk of this segment’s business came from lunch orders focusing on salads, bowls and sandwiches, but now housebound families are seeking on-trend dinner options.

Sweetgreen jumped on this opportunity by debuting an entirely new category: the Plates menu. The lineup includes nine offerings, with six plant-forward entrees that pair proteins such as Hot Honey Chicken, Herby Fish, Tofu Steak and Miso Chicken with vegetables, whole grains and beans. For the first time, the health-focused chain is also offering sides that can be purchased separately. These include Spicy Pesto Sweet Potatoes and Cauliflower Rice + Beans.

The meals are packaged on square plates to differentiate them from the chain’s signature salads and warm bowls, and the components are placed next to each other to resemble a traditional dinner plate. Already in ideation, the plates were originally scheduled to roll out in 2021, but Sweetgreen’s chefs sped up development in response to increased consumer demand for warm, satisfying options as families spend more time around the dinner table.

Sweetgreen plates

“We’re continuing to look for ways to evolve our offerings as the needs of our guests change due to the impact of COVID-19,” said Nicolas Jammet, Sweetgreen’s co-founder and chief concept officer, in a statement. “With Plates, our goal is to help create meaningful connections and good-for-you dining experiences during times where it may seem hard to do so.”

With most of its six New York City locations in neighborhoods surrounded by office buildings, Fields Good Chicken was a mostly lunch-driven concept, according to founder and CEO Field Failing. “Before coronavirus, our whole roast chicken wasn’t a huge piece of our product mix. We sold many more bowls and salads,” he said. “But in the last two months or so, our menu has shifted into larger format meals.”

About three weeks into the stay-at-home order, Failing built a family meal around that whole chicken, rounding it out with three sides and housemade cornbread. “We saw that people were ordering larger volumes of food to feed their families, and this package easily serves four to five, or provides leftovers for another meal,” he said. “It’s become one of our bestsellers and will stay on our menu for good.”

Chopt Creative Salad Co., another bowl-centric fast casual, also expanded into family meals when COVID-19 closed its restaurants. “We knew that people would be looking for a healthy, easy solution to feed their families,” said David Menis, VP of marketing. “We also knew that not everyone’s quarantine ‘family’ was a traditional family. They could be roommates, groups of friends, multigenerational families, etc.” To fit that flexibility, the chain offers households a 20% discount off a group order of $40, promoting packages such as the Caesar Family Meal featuring two LTO salads—Spicy Sonoma Caesar and Mexican Street Corn Caesar—targeted at dinner customers.

“Although we’ve seen the family meals ordered throughout the day, there’s definitely been an increase in our dinner business, particularly in our suburban locations where the promotion is paired with curbside pickup,” said Menis. Chopt plans to continue to carry family meals and iterate on them in the future to incorporate additional menu items.


Bowl concepts are not the only ones expanding the menu into dinner territory. Smashburger recently launched three Take & Make Family Meal Kits, with all the ingredients and directions to make burgers or sandwiches and tots for four hungry diners. The choices include beef patties with all the fixings, crispy chicken sandwiches and smoked bacon brisket burgers. Also appealing to the sandwiches-for-dinner crowd is Schlotzsky’s; its Family Meal Deal is available only after 4 p.m. In addition to deli sandwiches, customers have the option of pizzas and flatbreads, with chips and cookies on the side.

Many fast casuals have always had the ingredients and innovation to move their menus into the dinner daypart. The coronavirus has provided a customer base and sped up the process and for some operators, there may be no turning back.


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