I can tell you that Phil Friedman of McAlister’s Deli was the first honest-to-goodness fast-casual chief executive to grace the cover of QSR magazine. Phil would disagree with this—he considered his concept quick-casual and insisted there was a difference between the two. I wasn’t buying it, and though I’m not much of one for labels, Phil and I had several good-natured arguments about the difference, or lack thereof, between fast-casual and quick-casual.
Looking back, it seems that so much of the furor about fast-casual—or whatever you want to call it—was semantics. There was not then, nor is there now, any agreement about exactly which restaurant brands should be included in that group. When I asked Dennis Lombardi, foodservice strategy guru, for his take on this, his response was, “There’s no set agreement as to which brands are fast-casual and which are not. A number of brands are either fast-casual or upscale quick-service, depending on who you ask and when.”
Given this inherent fuzziness of definition, it’s interesting to trace the development of fast-casual as reflected in the pages of QSR—not just in what we covered, but in how we approached the changing quick-service segment.
When I began my stint as editor of QSR in 2002, fast-casual was really and truly beginning to make waves in the industry. It was by no means new then and, in fact, had made an appearance in the very first issue of QSR in September 1997 in our coverage of California Pizza Kitchen’s ASAP concept, which was billed as “premium fast-serve.” Similarly, issue No. 3 covered Wrap Works, also characterized as premium fast-serve, and noted for its characteristics of top-quality food in an upscale setting.
Just a few issues later, we published our first in-depth look at food trends in the industry, the foremost of which was an increased emphasis on quality—with a concomitant rise in prices. As regards the latter, Rubio’s founder Ralph Rubio noted, “Customers are willing to pay a little more, but not a lot more. After all, this is quick-service.”
Whether he meant to or not, Rubio hit on a crucial point. I would later come to realize, in fact, that it was the most critical point for QSR magazine. Was fast-casual really part of quick-service?
Fast-forward to 2003. About a year into my tenure as editor, we made the decision to tweak QSR’s position in the market by altering the magazine’s tagline from “The Magazine of Quick-Service Restaurant Success” to “Quality and Speed for Restaurant Success.”