On the consumer side, Zagat last year released its “Fast-Food Chains Survey,” which ranked 24 of the largest quick-serve chains based on consumer opinions. In the end, Zagat’s overall awards ranked Chipotle and Panera, two of the most widely acknowledged fast-casual concepts, in the top five overall alongside Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, and Sonic. Zagat’s report bills Chipotle as “the new generation of fast food” and says Panera offers “fast food with class,” without using the term “fast casual.”
For its part, Technomic does not try to tally total fast-casual units. “Because we have not been tracking the independent fast-casual restaurants, it is too difficult to estimate the size of units in the market,” Tristano says. “In addition, new restaurants are opening frequently and many traditional quick-serve concepts are converting to a fast-casual format.”
Certainly, Tristano says, anyone who wants to count fast-casual units has to come up with some specific definitions and parameters. Then, he adds, there might be guidelines, but not every chain has to incorporate all 10 guidelines. He cites Chicago-based Potbelly Sandwich Works, which emphasizes menu variety and quality, but where sandwich prices hover below the $5 mark. “Even with a pop on the side, you’re still not at the $8 or $9 level that would put you at Technomic’s fast-casual check average,” he says. (The Potbelly Web site refers to the concept as a “unique neighborhood sandwich joint.”) Category competitor Firehouse Subs features a décor that’s themed, though not upscale, but the service does not feature interactivity. “So Firehouse has a strong argument for being fast-casual,” Tristano says, “but then so does a concept like Quiznos and Subway.”
And what to make of quick-serve chains that are transitioning to something resembling a fast-casual? At what point in the process does the company get to take on that coveted fast-casual name tag—with its connotations of quality and growth? Six-hundred-unit Captain D’s Seafood is one concept making such a transition, starting with restaurants in its home region, the greater Nashville area. Under the leadership of President David Head, the process will take up to five years. Captain D’s is installing upscale interiors, adding Wi-Fi service, and expanding the menu with the addition of grilled items like Alaskan salmon, tilapia, farm-raised catfish, and shrimp skewers. Mediterranean-influenced pasta dishes such as Zesty Shrimp Scampi, Creamy Shrimp Alfredo, and Classic Chicken Parmesan give guests savory nonfried options.
Tristano at Technomic says he recently visited a Captain D’s Seafood Kitchen in Alabama. “Absolutely, it fits into fast-casual in terms of things like price, the upscale factor, the menu,” he says of the evolving concept. But that doesn’t mean it makes his list of fast-casual concepts. “Over time,” he says, “you have to look at how many units are converted and where do they stand [in the process].”