Restaurant Council Serves Up Knowledge on Booming “Fast Casual” Segment

The chair of the National Restaurant Association’s Fast Casual Industry Council offers a look inside one of the fastest-growing segments of the restaurant industry.

When you think of fast-casual dining, the first name that probably comes to mind is Chipotle. The Mexican cuisine giant’s rapid growth in just over two decades—from a handful of stores in the Denver area to more than 1,600 locations nationwide—serves as a microcosm for what the fast-casual segment of the restaurant industry is experiencing as a whole.

According to data from market research firm Euromonitor, cited by the Washington Post last week, the fast-casual market has swelled by 550 percent since 1999, more than 10 times the growth the fast-food industry saw in the same period. In 2014, Americans spent $21 billion at fast-casual restaurants.

Needless to say, the rapid rise of the segment has made life interesting for members of the Fast Casual Industry Council—a subgroup of 12 industry leaders within National Restaurant Association. FCIC Chair Geoff Alexander, president and managing partner of Wow Bao and executive vice president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, recently spoke to Associations Now about the work the council is doing to serve its industry.

Why has the fast-casual trend gotten off to such a hot start?

The big reason why fast casual is such a draw for people is it’s really based on great food at a great price, and with a speed of service. It’s about value, it’s about quality, and there’s a speed element to it, which I think has made it very approachable and made it very desirable to a lot of Americans right now.

What is FCIC’s role within the restaurant industry?

When the FCIC began, the space hadn’t really been discovered yet. There were a couple of restaurants who felt that they weren’t quick service but they weren’t full service, and together a group of people got together to try to define what fast casual is. And then as we grew in numbers and restaurants became more and more involved with our group, we were recognized by the NRA [about five years ago], and they asked us to become part of what they were working on to define and give a voice to the segment. We look at our role as sort of educating and being a resource to both the NRA and to up-and-coming fast casuals.

There seems to be some debate over how to exactly define “fast casual.” How has FCIC addressed that issue?

The FCIC came up with 10 Fs for fast casual, and you have to adhere to them to really be part of it. The restaurant operators who find it hard to define fast casual are the operators who are trying to take their concept or their restaurant and make it fit in this segment. They don’t fit the model, but they want to be because it’s hot and attractive right now.

What does it mean to the industry, and to your businesses individually, to have a group like the FCIC?

There are people on the council who run a 900-unit restaurant group, and there are people who run four restaurants. When we all get together, there’s great networking and great think-tank sessions, and we all can learn from each other’s experiences. For the industry, we offer a lot of different perspectives that the association can use to inform themselves on how they need to go after the government to shape policy. The purpose of the NRA is to be a resource and to be a voice for the restaurant community. We’re not trying to get involved in the issues, but we are trying to explain how the issues affect us.

Will there be another Chipotle?

I think there will be. Probably not based around Mexican cuisine, but there’s no reason why an Asian concept or an Italian concept can’t grow and have the same kind of success that Chipotle has had. There’s so much excitement in this marketplace and a plethora of incredible chefs who want to get their food out there to a consumer who only has a certain budget to fit into. It’s a very exciting time for the fast-casual industry.

A meal from Chipotle, a breakout hit in the fast-casual sector. (Michael Saechang/Flickr)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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