NEW YORK -- Retailers who sell prepared foods may well profit from appealing to "fast casual" diners -- an emerging and fast-growing restaurant dining category -- if they can meet the needs of these particular consumers.
A study called Here Comes Fast Casual, co-sponsored by retail design and branding consultant King-Casey, cited "good quality food" as the top reason consumers seek out fast casual concepts, followed by "convenience to home" and "good value for money." "Faster service" and "convenience to work" rounded out the top five.
Some retailers, however, see nothing new about the fast casual tag.
"It sounds like somebody's renamed home meal replacement," said John Highbaugh, director of food services at Coppell, Texas-based Minyard Food Stores. He noted that HMR has been the hot button for quite some time.
"This is the same customer the supermarket industry's been targeting and trying to reach for about five years," Highbaugh told SN. "We still endeavor to capture that customer in greater numbers. You're not really talking about a new trend. Supermarkets have been involved with hot delis for two decades."
According to Tom Cook, the project's originator and King-Casey's chief executive officer, there are great opportunities for retailers who are willing to make some investment in their food-service areas with respect to decor and design, merchandising and presentation of food.
"Make your food-service section look like a destination, even if you don't have an eat-in area," he said, noting that most supermarkets currently lack the quality and variety of meals to appeal to the fast casual consumer.
Bristol Farms, El Segundo, Calif., operates sit-down Bristol Cafes in 10 of its 12 stores. The retailer -- currently rated "best for top quality" in the supermarket category in the Zagat Survey 2000-2001 Los Angeles Marketplace for the second year in a row -- made in-store eateries an amenity most Los Angeles supermarkets never pursued.
According to Charlie Bergh, vice president, marketing, the company's goal from the beginning has been to create the best food experience, both eating and shopping. The agenda has been helped along as new stores were acquired and cafes added.
"Many of our customers had their first experience with Bristol's food at the cafe, and then migrated into the store," he said, adding that the sit-down eating facilities can often act as Bristol Farms' best advertisement. Bergh also noted that prices at the cafe were "comparable" with what the survey determined fast casual diners paid for meals: $5.45 for breakfast, $7.07 for lunch and $11.66 for dinner.
Cook defined fast casual as a concept that balances the speed of quick-service restaurants such as McDonald's, KFC and Subway, with the higher food quality and environmental ambiance of casual dining operators like Sizzler, Applebee's and Ponderosa. Fast casual combines the best of both with an intermediate price point. The formula serves up the superior food quality of casual eateries, but operates under stricter QSR-like cost structures.
The fast casual concept is represented by such eateries as TGI Friday's Express, Boston Market, Chili's Express and Schlotszky's Deli, among others. Specifically, TGI Friday's Express was cited by nearly 25% of the respondents as the "most frequented" fast casual restaurant in the country.
And although Panera Bread Co. was not in the survey's Top 10 fast casual restaurants, Cook cited Panera's, with more than 260 bakery-cafes nationwide, as the "paradigm" establishment of the new fast casual trend.
"They used to be called the St. Louis Bread Co., and they re-imaged their name and restaurant," he said. "In the past year, many fast casual upstarts like Panera's are getting casual dining establishments scared."
And while eating good-quality food is the primary goal of the fast casual diner, "getting" the food -- even "ordering" the food -- is a big factor that the survey participants said contributed to the pleasantness of the whole dining experience, Cook noted. That means supermarkets need to evaluate and improve their range of ordering services, and to hire and train courteous, pleasant counter people and order takers.
"Supermarkets need to hire people who are into it and can romance the food experience," Cook said. "It's not just about rattling off the specials."
The survey, which was also co-sponsored by Pepsi-Cola Fountain Beverage Division and QSR Magazine, culled its final interviewees from initial phone sessions that determined whether the respondents had eaten at a fast casual restaurant within the month. Pollsters modified a listing of fast casual restaurants for East, South, Midwest and West regions, and then interviewed a total of 100 men and women in each of those areas.
The poll confirmed the importance of the fast casual from the consumer's point of view, Cook noted.
"Our goal in the survey wasn't to prove or verify the term," he said. "We were trying to define who the fast casual customer was to help food operators capitalize on the fast casual trend."
Cook acknowledged fast casual is yet only a small slice of the dining trends pie, but he said it's a rapidly growing one. "All indicators show fast casual is in tune with people who are cutting back on cooking because they're so busy," he said.
That's why, he believes, supermarkets should jump on the bandwagon.
For Minyard's Highbaugh, a 35-year industry veteran, the major change in the industry occurred when "Mom went to work," a phenomenon that took its toll on cooking from scratch.
"Today, because people are so busy with work and other things, cooking is an event or hobby, rather than a chore," he said.
Whether retailers deem fast casual the latest dining tag or an all-too-familiar-sounding marketing term, the trend bodes well for business.
"Fast casual can provide instant credibility for a supermarket," Cook stated, suggesting supermarkets could even create their own private-label fast casual line. But, as Cook reminds retailers, every trend -- even a new one -- must stay abreast of the times and attuned to the market.