In part one of this series I profiled the growth of fast casual brands in the UK. In this follow-on post, I’ll outline five areas that characterise fast-casual brands and have contributed to their success, before looking at how full-service casual dining brands can best respond.

1. Focus

Fast casual brands are typically characterised by focus. Rarely do they offer more than four categories of item, which, by accident or design, lends itself to affection and fan clubs developing around single ‘hero’ products.

Limited menus mean that propositions are easy to get and operationally deliver. This focus helps consumers make decisions too, lending itself to one of the holy grails of marketing; habit forming.

2. Quality of product

On the product side, fast casual brands promote the quality of their product typically through a-board imagery and transparent sourcing of ingredients. And they are usually bold and confident in all communications around it.

From a brand perspective, there’s a big focus on narrative and telling the product story (e.g. “our meat is reared in Jeff’s organic farm in Scotland”), adding credibility and authenticity. Commitment to locally produced products and craft beer? Almost certainly.

Typically they champion seasonal or locally grown ingredients, increasingly relevant to would be customers and their evolving construct of ‘heathy’ and ‘wellbeing’. Consequently, these brands present a credible alternative to sit-down restaurant meals and fast-food.

3. Accessibility

Fast casual brands are typically located in high footfall locations (transport hubs, high street), typically near offices and shopping centres. The product is offered at an accessible price point (arguably creating a definitive ‘hybrid’ space with prices between full service and fast food) to such an extent it is seen as both a trade up from a sandwich or fast-food as well as a trade down from casual dining, depending on the occasion.

4. Control

The success of fast casual brands is not solely to do with speed (ordering at the counter means you can typically be in and out in under 7 minutes). It’s also about control. Most offer the ability to customise a core dish with add-ons under the loose premise of being ‘for free’. This gives repeat customers the ability to feel like they are having a new meal every time they visit as well as giving a sense of generosity.

5. Contemporising ‘service’

Service tends to be an area that fast-casual brands differentiate around too. From the theatrics of the assembly line to the buzz of the kitchen, preparing the product in front of diners’ eyes. Many propositions feel more of a cult than corporate bland, and, this informality and energy from the staff creates a ‘theatrical distraction’ as diners wait for their order to be prepared.

Full service to fight back?

So what can the established full-service brands do to ensure they don’t suffer the same fate as Nokia? (whose CEO famously remarked back in December ‘“we didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost”.)

In Morar’s Big Restaurant Survey we have seen the impact of fast casual brands on key attitudinal brand metrics including positive buzz and momentum in the last few waves of research. These brands are grabbing attention and typically create a local buzz when they open. The most successful ones make the establishment of casual dining stalwarts look slow and provide a credible and accessible alternative.

The time is right for the full-service stalwarts to therefore assess their propositions end to end (something I do a lot at Morar with our eating-out clients), refining and selectively innovating to ensure they are not left behind in the wake of this revolution.