It is no secret that consumers are becoming increasingly clever about their restaurant choices. It is also no secret that consumers now have unparalleled access to their favorite restaurant brands over multiple facets. This new idea of eating out has emerged hand-in-hand with the availability and growth of social media; restaurant brands can now be found on sources like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Consumers can easily download mobile applications and partake in internet-exclusive deals and promotions. Brand information and desired content is now immediately accessible. This rapidly developing trend is all the more evident within the realm of the Fast Casual industry. It is here where consumers are primarily changing the landscape of the restaurant business.
Fast Casual Restaurants are increasingly being sought because consumers find Fast Casual to be providing the best food value away from home. It is here that socially savvy consumers are searching for hipper, more laid-back environments with reasonably priced, quality food items. Consumers are approaching food as a quality-of-life experience; they expect an inviting ambiance, a socially engaging space with seemingly fresh ingredients. These Fast Casual venues are the happy medium between the impersonal but time conscious Quick Service Restaurants, and the more intimate but not always time efficient Casual Dining experience. Restaurants like Chipotle and Panera are thriving in an otherwise fickle economic structure. Research hub and agency, DigitalCoco, found that in 2010 63% of restaurant consumers are visiting Fast Casual locations approximately 4.3 times per month. This number stumps those of Quick Service Restaurants (QSR), with 2.8 visits per month, Casual Dining, with 1.9 visits per month and Fine Dining coming in at 1.1 visits per month.
The data revealed shows movement in all sectors with exception of QSR mostly likely due to some recent improvement in the economic condition of consumers and their willingness to spend more for pent up demand of eating out.
The success of Fast Casual monster, Chipotle, also demonstrates the power of word-of-mouth. Loyal consumers who visit regularly are sharing their love for the brand with others (thus reiterating the idea of a socially-structured brand.) The power of Chipotle's word-of-mouth traffic reiterates consumers lack of interest in being advertised to. In 2010, Chipotle internally produced an ad campaign that literally mocked the advertising process in itself. The ads' undertone helped confirm the intelligence of today's nifty food consumer. This campaign also touched on Chipotle's "Food With Integrity" mantra; Steve Ells' promise to use as many natural, organic and hormone-free products as possible. Their mantra spoke directly to consumers participating in the wave of eco-friendly eating while boasting an economically friendly pricetag. The proof is indeed in the numbers: Chipotle's 2011 first quarter numbers showed a 24.3% increase in revenue from the same time last year.
In addition, many Fast Causal brands have been clever in building their social media presence and content networks. These networks have created a brand-to-consumer relationship, an availability and sense of personal outreach often lacking in the restaurant industry. Networks like those of Starbucks, Genghis Grill and Pei Wei are engaging their consumers into an overall brand experience. These brands are reaching out beyond coupons to connect with their audience; they are letting consumers know that they, not the brand, are in charge. The control, availability and access has been given solely to the consumer.
So how can restaurants profit from this shift? The answer is clear: Shift with their audience and adapt to the change. Companies and restaurants must follow the flow of information and the thought process of their consumer. More and more consumers are paying attention to brand content and consistency. The content must go hand-in-hand with consumer expectations of a social eating experience and their desire for instant availability and visibility. Consumers are becoming less interested with the clutter and superficial nature of advertising and marketing: Today they are leaning towards communication, engagement, transparency and substance. Consumers are demanding an overall experience; an experience that looks at their individuality and not as a morsel among the masses.