Growing demand for higher quality, customized food driving fast casual trend

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By: Jeff Parrott
jparrott@elkharttruth.com

Jason Bryant/Flavor 574

“Fast casual” dining is a term that seems to pop up everywhere lately. What does it mean? Is it only for bigger cities? And is it just a passing fad?

Fast casual describes restaurants where the food and the atmosphere fall somewhere between those of fast food and traditional casual dining restaurants in terms of both cost and quality, said Brenda Smith, editor of FastCasual.com.

“It’s the fastest, and in some cases the only, growing segment of the restaurant scene,” Smith said. “It’s particularly attractive to Millennials, and that’s where the dollars are.”

Fast casual sales in 2013 grew 11 percent over the prior year, according to industry research and consulting firm Technomic.

By “Millennials,” Smith was referring to the generation of Americans age 18 to 34, many of whom are willing to pay a bit more for dine-in or carry-out fare that’s healthier, tastier and prepared to order before their eyes. Chipotle Mexican Grill has pioneered the trend and spawned many followers, Smith said.

Chipotle, which operates a store at 5454 N. Main St. in Mishawaka’s Grape Road/North Main commercial corridor and another in South Bend’s Eddy Street Commons, prides itself on serving ingredients that not only taste better, but also are produced with principle.

Earlier this year it suspended serving pork carnitas after discovering its pork supplier was confining sows in crates that were too small. The company’s first-quarter financial report indicated that it cost the chain about $2 million to yank the product from stores.

“This is a very socially aware generation that has a bit of an activist bent,” Smith said of Millennials.

It’s also a generation that grew up with the Internet and is used to a digital world customized to its interests.

“Our world is very much tailored to that micro experience, so why should restaurants be any different?” Smith said.

Over the past few years, South Bend and Mishawaka have seen many new fast casual offerings. South Bend’s Eddy Street Commons development has added BarBici Italian Street Food and McAlister’s Deli, while the Grape Road/Main Street area now offers Noodles and Company, Zoup and a Panera.

People who live in smaller cities such as Elkhart might wonder whether they’ll ever see a Chipotle. Smith said the fast casual trend has tended to focus more on larger urban and suburban areas, but is now entering more smaller metro markets.

Thompson Thrift, the Terre Haute-based firm developing the Shoppes on Six retail complex on C.R. 6 in Elkhart, is marketing the project to some fast casual chains and there are “still possibilities” they’ll land one, said Ryan Menard, vice president of retail sales and leasing.

Fast casual dining “maximizes the value of your time,” Menard said. “You can get a more healthy meal, more quickly and more cost effective (than casual dining).”

Menard agreed that fast casual chains are “looking to penetrate any and all markets, small as well as larger markets.”

Of course, Elkhart County already has some prospering fast casual restaurants, such as Panera Bread, 4536 Elkhart Road (U.S. 33) in Goshen, and Penn Station East Coast Subs, which opened on C.R. 6 in July.

Step into a Martins Super Markets Side Door Deli around lunch or dinner time, in Elkhart County or elsewhere, and you’ll see heavy foot traffic. The grocery chain opened the first Side Door Deli 18 years ago at its Ironwood Road/South Bend Avenue store in South Bend, but has seen strong growth in the concept in recent years.

Martins deli director Roxanne Pallo said that while dinner sales are great for the “grab-and-go take,” lunch time is a bit busier because of shorter time frames that customers have for their break, and they tend to stay and eat in the cafe seating.

“Our fresh deli fried chicken is everyone’s favorite, along with our fresh salads and paninis,” Pallo said. “The salad bar is another big hit. At dinner time our fresh hot chicken and fish really go, as well as our Kitchen Fresh options that can just be warmed and served.”

In September 2012, the Martins deli added a “2 Dine for $9.99,” which has been a “huge hit,” Pallo said. They are carry-out dinner entrees, pre-packaged both hot and cold, with a different selection offered daily.

Smith said fast casual’s popularity is influencing the other two restaurant segments. For example, fast food chain Wendy’s is renovating its stores with higher-quality furniture and adding Coca-Cola Freestyle soft drink machines, while casual dining chain Romano’s Macaroni Grill is launching a new Romano’s Kitchen Counter inside 131 of its existing restaurants.

“It’s definitely not a fad,” Smith said. “It’s here to stay.”

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