Fast Casual is the newest concept in restaurant dining. It is called Fast Casual due to the concepts hybrid nature. It is a blend of Fast Food and Casual Dining. Fat Food and Casual Dining are much larger so let's explore each and their unique attributes.
Fast Food (the actual industry term is Quick Service Restaurant - QSR) is best described as concepts such as McDonalds, KFC, and Burger King. Fast Food (QSR) concepts have price points of approximately $5 per meal, have average quality food, limited menus and have no table service. The fare at QSR is primarily hand-held sandwiches, wraps, burritos and a limited selection of salads. McDonalds McCafe has added upscale coffee drinks such as McCafe Mocha, McCafe Latte, McCafe Mocha Frappe' and others which are becoming an important and growing component for McDonalds. The ambience is essentially function, lots of plastic seating and table tops, fluorescent lighting and the chains branded graphics. This is changing somewhat as McDonalds converts many units over to a "softer" interior design.
Within fast food there is a growing trend towards upscale fast food. This is because far too many fast food chains copied each other… creating a bevy of look alike QSR's. Upscale fast food is most accurately depicted by the Pre A Manger chain. Although Sandwich Shops are technically QSR's the Pret A Manger chain is delivering healthier for you food, right sized and NOT supersized and gets consumers out of the store in approximately 1 minute. The best way to understand upscale fast food is to view this video at Pret A Manger in Union Square, Manhattan.
Casual Dining is best described as concepts such as TGI Fridays, Applebee's and Chili's. Casual Dining concepts have price points of approximately $15 per meal, have menus with a wide range of choices. If you look at the Applebee's Menu, you can see menu items go behind the limited QSR hand-held foods - with offerings of more extensive center of the plate beef, fish and poultry as well as an extensive line of salads and the most recent 2 for $20 specials of 1 Appetizer plus 2 Entrees. Most casual dining restaurants serve alcohol. Ambience varies considerably but the quality of the interior, walls, floors, ceilings and tables and seating is far above QSR standards. Many, like Applebee's for example, have lots of wood and millwork, custom lighting and over-sized booths combined with tables and chairs made of similar materials as booths.
Fast Casual borrowed from Fast Food and Casual Dining. Fast Casual features a more upscale and diverse menu selection as can be seen at Chipotle Mexican Grill Menu. At Panera Bread for example, basic sandwiches are replaced with Signature Hot Panini, examples like Cuban Chicken and Tomato, Mozzarella and Fresh Basil. Not just regular prepackaged sales but hand-tossed salads such as Thai Chopped Chicken Salad. All sandwiches are made with artisan breads and not the usual loaf white breads or soggy rolls.
Fast Casual has no table service and orders are placed and paid first and customers are direct to the assembly area where the food is ready for you to bring to your table. Some chains have a slight variant here - they will take your order, let you proceed to your table and a food runner will bring your meal to you. The ambience is more upscale vs. fast food with designs ranging from upscale, soft colors with fireplaces, the look at most Panera Bread locations all the way to the other extreme of an industrial, brick and stainless steel look from Chipotle, dubbed the Chipotle Experience.