Lines blurring between fast-casual, fast-food

by Monica Watrous
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CHICAGO – As fast-food restaurants aim to reclaim market share from the fast-casual segment, consumers are noting fewer distinctions between the two, said Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm. In areas such as value, service and menu variety, lines across limited-service restaurant categories have begun to blur.

Sixty-four percent of consumers eat at fast-food restaurants at least weekly, with 39 percent going more often. Patronage of fast-casual concepts is less frequent; 40 percent of consumers dine at a fast-casual restaurant at least once a week, with 19 percent topping that number.

"Limited-service restaurants will need to compete for visitation by focusing on their convenience platforms, amenities and ambiance in addition to the quality of their ingredients," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic. "Fast-food concepts in particular can differentiate themselves and better compete with fast-casual concepts by adding loyalty programs, free Wi-Fi, or enhancing their ambiance."

Convenience is important to consumers, who report that call-ahead or on-line ordering may encourage more usage of limited-service restaurants. Thirty percent of consumers would like to see delivery offered at fast-food restaurants, and 28 percent expect the option from fast-casuals.

Another key attribute is ambiance. More than half of fast-casual customers expect an upscale, relaxing atmosphere, and 17 percent say they will go elsewhere if that is not offered.

What’s on the menu? Healthier options are coveted by 23 percent of fast-food consumers and 27 percent of fast-casual users, who are slightly more willing than fast-food patrons to pay more for better-for-you menu items. The leading health claims at fast-food restaurants are gluten-free, indicated for 2.8 percent of menu items at top chains, and low-fat (1.3 percent). On fast-casual menus, 3 percent of items carry an organic claim, and 1.9 percent are indicated as natural.
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