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Why this restaurant segment is seeing traffic gains amid industry declines


The fast-casual category first became a thing in the 1990s (about the time Chipotle emerged) and came of age in the 2010s following the Great Recession, when consumers wanted more bang for their buck in the form of value, speed, and quality. The category came to be defined as a sort of elevated QSR but without the full-service component of casual dining.

Fast forward to this post-pandemic environment and fast casual has become a rare sweet spot of growth for the industry as price point lines continue to blur between segments. In the past several quarters, as inflation-weary consumers pull back on visits to most casual-dining concepts and some quick-service concepts, fast-casual players like Potbelly, Chipotle, Wingstop, CAVA, and Shake Shack have enjoyed traffic lifts — in some instances quite significant.

The segment has also outperformed on sales. According to recently released Technomic data, fast-casual sales in 2023 grew by 11.2%, followed by quick-service sales at 7.9%. Family-dining restaurants grew by 5.7% and casual-dining chains grew by 4.7%.

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