Survey: Fast casual operators grow during recession

Fast casual restaurants have continued to make inroads with consumers during the economic downturn, according to a survey conducted by Mintel in April.

The Chicago-based foodservice research firm reported that the segment with a price point and service level that fall between quick service and casual dining accounted for about $23 billion in sales in 2010, a nearly 30-percent increase over 2006 results.

“The relatively new fast casual category has fared well through the recession as people can see the added value in the food and atmosphere, despite the slightly higher price point,” said Eric Giandelone, Mintel’s director of foodservice research.

“The majority of restaurant-goers say quality is the most important determinant in their choice of a restaurant, which will continue to help this category grow.”

The National Restaurant Association projects that foodservice nationwide will account for about $580 billion in sales in 2010.

Mintel surveyed 2,000 adults aged 18 and older who had access to the Internet.

Mintel defines the fast-casual segment as having a per-person check average between $6 and $12, and often having modified table service, higher food quality than fast-food restaurants, greater attention to healthful foods and sometimes beer and wine service.

Chains in the segment include Panera Bread, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Pei Wei Asian Diner and Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

In surveying consumers about their dining-out behavior during the lunch daypart, Mintel found they now frequented fast casual restaurants nearly as often as they did casual dining restaurants, with 26 percent of respondents saying they had visited a fast casual restaurant within the past month, compared to 28 percent for casual dining.

However, fast food operators continue to rule the daypart, with nearly 60 percent of respondents reporting they had visited a quick-service restaurant for lunch in the past month.

The survey also indicated that more people would visit fast casual restaurants if more of them existed. Nearly 30 percent of individuals surveyed said they don’t go to fast casual locations because “there are no/not many fast casual restaurants by me.”

But others said they didn’t like the hallmarks of the segment. Twenty-six percent of respondents said fast casual restaurants were too expensive and 22 percent said they preferred regular wait staff when they dined out.

Mintel’s results are similar to those of a survey published earlier this year by Morgan Stanley, which also found that consumers visited fast casual restaurants about as often as casual dining restaurants but less often than quick service restaurants. Respondents to that survey also said they would frequent them more often if their locations were more convenient and prices were lower.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]