The definition of "fast casual" is fuzzy. "It is very fuzzy," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of the Illinois-based food-service research firm Technomic. "Not only is it fuzzy, but a lot of chains are shifting toward fast casual, so it becomes harder and harder."
For instance, Tristano said, both Panda Express and the Midwestern hamburger-frozen custard restaurant Culvers could be considered fast casual, thanks to their higher check averages and menu styles. Yet Panda is considered fast casual, because of its more upscale decor, while Culvers' lower-end decor gives it the quick-service label.
Even experts disagree on the exact definition of fast casual. Some consider Starbucks to be a fast-casual concept. Tristano doesn't. "They don't serve food," he said. "What they do serve is prepackaged or preheated. So as you see the definition is very broad, even among experts, of what is and what isn't fast casual."
Here are Tristano's guidelines:
- Higher check averages. Fast casuals average between $7 and $11 -- which is the main reason why Subway and Quiznos are still considered quick service, though Tristano noted that Quiznos' check averages make it close.
- Targeted at adults. Fast casuals are largely aimed at adults who want more upscale fare.
- Upscale decor. This may be the most difficult definition -- many quick-service restaurants are remodeling stores with waterfalls, flat-screen TVs and a more cafe-like atmosphere. Yet fast-casual restaurants are generally known for their atmosphere.
- Pay at the counter. The food is made fresh and is either brought to the table or the customer is called back to the counter.