It’s a surprising twist in an industry that has been dominated, at least in recent years, by the rise of fast casuals: In the last month or so, at least three concepts around the country have switched service models, going from limited to full service, or a mix of both.
Given the continued consumer appeal of fast casual, the move seems counterintuitive. But these operators say they’re doing what’s best for their brands.
Here’s a look at the ripple effects of morphing from fast casual to full service.
1. Boosting menu complexity
Furious Spoon, a six-unit ramen concept in Chicago, found that customers wanted and needed more explanation of the menu than quick service could provide. The chain is currently revamping all its units, except for two food hall “express” locations, to full service. The change will allow servers to, for example, explain that all noodles and broths are made in-house, chef-partner Shin Thompson said. What’s more, freeing the concept from fast-casual expectations of extreme speed will allow Thompson to broaden the menu, giving customers more choices and boosting check averages. An expanded menu rolling out early this year includes a Japanese-style crab cake that features high-end ingredients and takes about seven minutes to execute—far longer than would be permissible at a fast casual, Thompson said. “In the quick-service model, everything has to be built around speed,” he said. “People want to be in and out.” The store’s first full-service rollout has only been open for a couple of weeks, but it’s reporting a 10% to 15% increase in check averages over the fast-casual design.
2. Elevating hospitality
Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group is known for its focus on customer service. When its Martina pizza concept opened in August 2017, it was as a fast casual, with those order’s-ready buzzers familiar to any Shake Shack diner. The restaurant recently closed for a week to reset as a full-service spot to make the dining experience less speed-focused and more relaxed, said Nick Anderer, Martina’s executive chef. With the change, the restaurant is adding larger pizzas, new menu items and an expanded wine list, Anderer said.
3. Easier hiring?
Revamping a fast casual to offer table service can require more employees or, at the very least, a shift in workload. At Furious Spoon, the full-service units have added one or two workers per store. But Thompson thinks it will be easier to fill those roles now that customer-facing staff will be earning more tips. Health-focused concept Modern Market, however, hasn’t added many servers. “We found that, other than really peak hours, we didn’t have to add staff,” said Robin Robison, the 27-unit chain’s vice president of operations, adding that even dishwashers are now ferrying food to customers. “It’s just the team working together to run the food. Anybody that’s available in the moment will take the food out to the table.”
4. Matching the service style to the food
For Modern Market, pivoting to expanded service has been in discussion for a couple of years, Robison said. After piloting the revamped service model in three restaurants, it rolled out systemwide late last year.
Forcing guests to bus their own tables and interrupting their conversations with buzzers alerting them to pick up their orders was an ill fit with Modern Market’s high-quality fare, Robison said.
“Having to take your plate up to a bus station just didn’t quite match up with the elevation of our food,” she said. “We want them to leave with a great memory of what the food looked like and tasted like, so they’re encouraged to come back.”
Modern Market employs a blended-service model in which customers order at the counter and food is brought to them. The chain is testing a radio-frequency tracking system for orders in three units. It’s especially useful in Modern Market’s largest restaurants, stores that span multiple levels, to give diners a tracking device with each order so food runners can be automatically guided to the correct table, she said. Smaller stores rely on table numbers to match food with diners.