The rise of fine-casual dining

“Fine-casual,” a phrase credited to Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer, melds the speed and convenience of fast-casual with a chef-driven menu and other upscale touches that take the experience up a notch.

A small-but-growing niche, fine-casual restaurants feed consumers’ craving for new cuisines and experiences while accomodating their demand for speed and convenience.

Traditional fine-dining eateries hit hard times during the recession as consumers tightened their belts. The newly frugal spent more of their dining dollars at fast-casual restaurants and chains offering fresh food for just a bit more than quickserve prices, and fast casual has been the fastest-growing industry segment in the years since.

The times drove some upscale eateries to tone down the ambiance and the prices to drive sales during the downturn, and the lines between segments are blurring further as the economy recovers and millennials’ cravings fuel the next hot trends. More recently, there are signs that upscale fine dining is making a comeback even as casual chains like Cracker Barrel expand into the fast-casual arena and fast-casual concepts like Denver-based Smiling Moose Rocky Mountain Deli expand into sit-down dining. And fine-casual is catching on with time-crunched consumers in search of something different.

People like the speed and convenience of ordering and paying at the counter, being served at the table and being done in a relatively short time, said NPD Group industry analyst Warren Solochek.

“One of the biggest gripes about fine or casual dining is how long the entire meal takes from start to finish,” he said. “I would characterize us in the US as being more ADD than ever before. Few of us on few occasions actually have the time to sit through a white tablecloth sort of occasion. If these fine-casual restaurants can get you over the hump on speed, I think it goes a long way.”

That’s the case at Denver’s Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery, said owner Christian Anderson.

“The trend is growing because demand for quality food quickly is growing.  We are eating out more, but don't necessarily have the time for a full-service meal.  We don't want the quality of the food to decrease, but we do want our dining experience to be quicker sometimes,” he said.

When fine-casual is good business

Fine-casual concepts with higher-end menus, bars and other amenities can charge a bit more than typical fast-casual eateries while still enjoying the lower rents and labor costs that come with smaller venues and models where customers order and pay at the counter, Solochek said.

Restaurants with fine-casual models need a knowledgeable person at the counter who can explain the menu and the options and a kitchen staff capable of turning out top-quality cuisine, but they don’t need the army of servers, bus people, runners and other staff it takes to run a traditional fine-dining eatery, he said.

That can be attractive amid a tight labor market and rising minimum wages, he said.

And, as fine-dining restaurants discovered during the recession, creating smaller and shareable entrees that keep costs down for customers can drive business among people who often make up at least some of the difference at the bar.

“They still get people who are willing to buy a fine glass of wine or a cocktail, so they may be cutting back on the food but hopefully the beverage spending will make up for some of it. Some of the fine-casual concepts have a good bar and that will help the overall profitability,” Solochek said.

Even with a bar, fine-casual concepts can operate in smaller spaces than traditional white tablecloth eateries, another way operators can cut costs, especially in high-rent markets like New York or Chicago, he said.

And, while the food quality is high, the menus are often limited to popular items like better burgers and wood-fired pizzas that can be prepared quickly.

The one-page menu at Chop Shop features a selection of sandwiches, specialty main dishes and salads that can be customized with meat, salmon or tofu.

“We decided to go this route because we thought that there was a real demand for a chef driven fast casual option where real chefs were cooking real food quickly,” Chop Shop’s Anderson said.

Independent eateries like Chop Shop may have an advantage when it comes to building fine-casual concepts. Because the price points can be a bit higher than typical fast-casual, the concept may not get big enough for major chains, Solochek said.

“Still, people are always looking for food that tastes really good and a little bit different and they’re willing to pay for it. If the average check is a little bit higher, as long as the quality of the food justifies it, it can work.”

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