Fast Casual continues to evolve, making the concept a moving target for restaurateurs who are trying to succeed in the market that accounted for 15% of all limited service restaurant sales in 2013, according to the “Top 150 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report” from Technomic. A panel discussion presented Saturday by NRA’s Fast Casual Industry Council at the 95th annual NRA Show featured three executives from concepts that have managed to get it right and grow their business along with their brand reputation.
Although they work for operations ranging in size from six units to more than 750 units, the executives from WOW BAO, Rubio’s and Firehouse of America all agreed that a few key objectives hold the key to success for the future of fast casual. Regardless of size, location or concept, fast casual operators can’t ignore the growing demand for healthy options, the importance of technology and the role that company culture plays in building an engaging and lasting brand.
Consumers crave “the perception of health”
As the health and wellness trend continues to grow and consumers demand healthy dining options, its important for restaurant operators to understand what healthy eating means to consumers . Geoff Alexander, executive vice president and managing partner at WOW BAO, spoke about the increasing emphasis on “perceived health”, and how different demographics have different expectations of “healthy” food. Older generations tend to place the most importance on “low” diets, he said, seeking out items with low calories and trans fat. Millennials, however, tend to focus on sustainability and often view sustainable, local or natural foods as being more healthful. “It’s more of a perception of health. Health is what’s important to you. Do I care about where my food came from, or do I care about if it will help me lose weight, or do I care about if it’s going to increase my metabolism? We have to be aware of what the different guest that is coming in is looking for,” he said.
Marc Simon, CEO of California-based fish taco chain Rubio’s, echoed the need to provide healthy options, saying about 28% of the chain’s menu is now composed of grilled fish options. Firehouse of America CEO Don Fox thinks about health more in terms of the feeling customers have when they leave the restaurant. “I want the customer to walk out after the experience feeling very good about the decision to have dined there … even if it was indulgent in some way, they aren’t feeling guilty about it,” he said.
Don’t get left behind when it comes to technology
Finding ways to incorporate new technology into restaurant operations should be a top priority for restaurateurs looking to stay relevant with today’s busy consumers. Alexander said when it comes to technology his motto is, “if you’re not first, you’re last.” The brand has already embraced mobile ordering and reaching out to customers using social media, and Alexander said he plans to start using handheld devices during dinner service so customers can add dessert or other additional items to an existing order.
Simon said Rubio’s is looking to tech upgrades including kiosk ordering systems that will help speed service. Adopting more automated systems could mean less need for front-of-house staff, but Simon said customer interaction will remain a priority for the chain. “When you order with us we bring you your food. We like that connection, that interaction, that table-touching. So, I don’t want to lose labor, I want to redeploy labor,” he said.
It’s about more than just food
All three panelists agreed that great-tasting food is essential, but its not enough to keep customers coming back. Today’s fast casual customer is looking for brands they can believe in that focus on issues that are important to them, such as sustainability, philanthropy and cultivating a strong company culture that helps employees succeed. “Fast casual guests are interested in brands that bring more to the table than just food. They’re looking for a connection, for a story, for a belief,” Simon said.
Alexander said WOW BAO runs pop-up shops at local charity events, which helps build positive publicity for the brand. Employee appreciation is a big part of the company culture as well, and Alexander said he writes a note to every employee on the anniversary of their hire date. “It’s three sentences, but it’s going to go a long way,” he said.
For Rubio’s, the ocean is part of the brand’s DNA, Simon said. The company searched for more than a year to find a tilapia supplier that met their strict sustainability requirements before discovering Regal Springs, the first aquafarm in the world to meet the International Standards for Responsible Tilapia Aquacultue. Rubio’s participates in beach clean-up projects to further underscore its commitment to the ocean. “For us, it’s just the right thing to do,” he said.