The fast-casual segment continues to grow as more restaurant brands with diverse offerings enter the market and diners increase the frequency of their visits. Consumers are dining at fast-casual eateries more often because they think their overall quality has improved and the food/beverage variety has improved, according to 2017 survey results presented in Datassential’s Fast Casual Keynote Report. More than half of those surveyed said they visit fast casual restaurants weekly or more often, and millennial and Generation X diners go even more frequently.
Chefs surveyed for the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot Culinary Forecast for 2017 named chef-driven fast casual eateries as the second hottest concept trend for this year. Pizza concepts such as &pizza and Spin Neopolitan Pizza, which features recipes developed in collaboration with James Beard Award–winning chef Michael Smith, have been growing for several years and are staying competitive with new offerings. Here’s a look at how pizzerias and two other hot concepts -- poke and Indian cuisine -- are fanning the fast-casual flames.
Increased speed, customization put a new spin on pizza
Pizza has long been a pillar of the casual dining world, but the standard choice of eating at a sit-down pizza parlor or dining at home with take-out or delivery pie has been shaken up in recent years. Fast-casual pizza concepts let consumers customize their own pies, and quick cooking on a conveyer belt or in a brick oven allows guests to dine at their own pace in the restaurant or grab something to go. Atlanta-based Uncle Maddio’s and &pizza from Washington, D.C., have rolled out online ordering to help diners save even more time.
The category began picking up steam several years ago, and in 2015 three of the five fastest-growing chain restaurants in 2015 were fast-casual pizza brands, according to Technomic. Today, brands such as Pie Five, MOD Pizza, Blaze Fast-Fire'd Pizza and Pieology Pizzeria have made quick, customizable pizza available from coast to coast.
The customizable aspect is especially appealing to consumers, and the individual pies can solve the problem of the “veto vote.” Gluten-free crust, non-dairy cheese or a meat-free pizza can satisfy one diner, while someone else in the group loads up a whole grain crust with three different proteins. Interesting topping options may be driving the future of fast-casual pizza. While “pizza” posted growth of -10% over the last four years, according to Datassential, the company’s research shows that “Buffalo Chicken Pizza” and “Meat Pizza” have grown 51% and 41%, respectively, over the same period.
Poke makes a splash
In its Food & Beverage Trends For 2017 report, restaurant consulting firm Baum + Whiteman predicted that food served in bowls would continue to be a major trend this year, and credited the poke craze for launching a trend toward all sorts of raw seafood served in bowls. Bowls have grown by 30% on fast casual entree menus since 2013, according to Datassential.
Fast-casual restaurants featuring poke -- a Hawaiian dish that tops a bowl of rice with cubed raw fish, sauce and a selection of toppings -- are popping up in cities across the US, from Sacremento, Calf. to New Orleans. The fast growth rate of the concept is made possible by its simplicity and low barrier to entry. “To open a poke place, all you need is an electrical outlet to cook the rice and a refrigeration unit for the fish,” Bloomberg wrote, explaining why so many of the almost 300 Hawaiian restaurants that have opened in the US in the last two years feature poke.
Pokeworks, which launched in 2015, is one of the fastest-growing poke brands. The chain has 10 current locations and is planning to expand in cities including Vancouver, Houston, Chicago and Philadelphia to reach 70 locations nationwide by 2020, co-founder Kevin Hsu said.
Speaking to the success of poke, Hsu said, “People enjoy culturally diverse foods. In addition, poke meets current consumer desires for healthier fast-casual options and a greater awareness for well-sourced ingredients.” Alongside the standard rice bowls, Pokeworks offers a salad option and a Poke Burrito that earned the brand a lot of attention when it went viral last year.
Indian concepts heat up
Indian fast-casual restaurants may not be as ubiquitous as those offering pizza or poke, but they are on the rise. The bold flavors and vegetable-focused nature of Indian cuisine make it appealing to today’s consumer. Indian dishes also translate well into rice bowls customized with various chutneys and sauces or grab-and-go friendly options such as wraps made with naan or other flatbreads. Kati Roll Company, which started in New York in 2002, offers burrito-like creations of paratha wrapped around marinated meats or spiced potatoes. The company opened its fifth location in November last year, Restaurant Hospitality reported.
Opening early next year in Chicago, The Art of Dosa will offer thin South Indian pancakes folded around a variety of fillings. Owner Ravi Nagubadi told Eater he experimented with various heat levels for the curry fillings and diners will be able to customize based on their preference. Spicy foods have been gaining fans in the US and curry has grown 50% of menus over the last four years, according to Datassential, but dialing down the heat for American palates is a concern for many Indian fast-casual operators hoping to attract a wide audience. At Stone Hearth Indian Cafe in Waco, Texas, owner Roshan Thakor offers diners varying degrees of heat, from mild, medium, authentic, hot and extreme, the Waco Tribune reported. “Controlling the spice is important, and customers ask about this all the time,” he said.
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