Diminishing consumer and Wall Street confidences may plague bygone prom king Chipotle, but the fast casual category it helped create is no shrinking violet. Last year, fast-casual restaurants performed better than any other food service segment, with $40 billion profits and sales among top operators up 8.4%.
What gives? Did 321 million Americans suddenly, simultaneously develop a yen for grain bowls and bamboo flatware, or are broader socio-economic forces at work?
Smart money is on the latter. Just as the ascendance of fast food coincided with America’s budding automotive industry and highway system, fast casual is ideally suited to the post-millennial era. Americans today work longer hours and are more likely to live in cities than previous generations. Economic uncertainty coupled with the explosion of culinary culture makes consumers increasingly aware of how and where they spend their dining-out dollar.
By means of comparison, industry analysts characterize fast food as hot meals served immediately from an unseen kitchen located behind a counter or drive-through window. Fast casual, on the other hand, involves customizable dishes prepared in front of the customer, usually at a slower pace and steeper price point.
Fast casual menus are not necessarily low-calorie, but they represent wholesomeness in the American imagination in ways that a Big Mac does not. Furthermore, many fast-casual operators speak to consumer concerns about sustainability and supporting small farms. Several celebrity chefs have entered the space, diversifying their portfolios and giving consumers the chance to see how a Michelin-starred toque plates a $12 meal.
Among the more noteworthy newcomers is Made Nice, the fast casual debut from…