The restaurant industry is no longer divided into clear-cut segments, at least from consumers' point of view. With the increasing growth of the fast casual service model and the addition of curbside to full-service restaurants, a dual concept has emerged: food fast.
 
Consumers' perception now combines traditional fast food and "food fast," meals served quickly with a greater emphasis on flavor, quality and ambiance.
 
Consumers, who once defined "fast food" as quick-service, drive-thru restaurants and convenience stores, now include other restaurants segments in that definition. A significant percentage of consumers (41 percent) are reporting that their idea of places offering "fast food" has expanded to include fast casual restaurants such as Panera Bread and full-service restaurants offering carryout and curbside service, according to data found by foodservice industry consultants Technomic Inc.
 
"As Americans continue to trade down from full-service concepts, more restaurants are competing for the ‘fast food/food fast' customer," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic. "Both quick-service and fast casual restaurants are borrowing elements from the other to drive traffic. This represents a host of challenges to operators rethinking their brands. Understanding consumers' changing perceptions of fast food, as well as competitors' responses, will be central to success."
 
The findings are part of Technomic's "Status and Future of Fast Foods: Consumer Trend Report," which looks at how consumers are seeking faster, more convenient service from all types of foodservice establishments, including convenience stores, food trucks and grocers offering retail meal solutions. Some trends examined in this report include:
  • Upscaling in limited-service restaurant formats: the development of bustling social settings within contemporary interior spaces
  • Introduction of price-driven value elements into fast casual restaurant menus
  • Broadening of full-service restaurants' service formats to include convenience-oriented platforms like call-ahead and text/online ordering, home delivery and curbside pickup.
  • Appearance in big-city markets of revitalized food trucks, offering upscale and gourmet "street food"
Other select findings include:
  • Nearly half of consumers (49 percent) say they eat at fast food restaurants at least once a week; about one fifth of consumers said the same for fast casual (16 percent) and full-service (20 percent) restaurants.
  • One out of four consumers (24 percent) say they've increased their visits to fast food restaurants in the past year, higher than for any other restaurant segment.
  • Roughly half of consumers (52 percent) say that a fast food meal should be delivered within five minutes; consumers are willing to wait somewhat longer for items they perceive as "food fast."
  • About a third of consumers say they would like to see dedicated take-out areas at fast food (32 percent) and fast casual (33 percent) restaurants.
  • Efficient ordering and carryout options at full-service restaurants have strong appeal. Call-ahead ordering for pickup, separate take-out stations, and curbside service interest 40 percent, 37 percent and 31 percent of consumers, respectively.
The Status and Future of Fast Foods: Consumer Trend Report is based on data from a November 2009 survey of 2,000 consumers. The report integrates industry data from the Top 500 U.S. restaurant chains, select secondary sources and menu analysis from Technomic's MenuMonitor database. Appendices include menu and concept profiles of 10 innovative food-fast concepts, and comprehensive demographic breakdowns for fast food and fast casual restaurant user groups and consumer clusters.

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