“Fast casual” and “fast food” are often used interchangeably among diners. For restaurant industry professionals, these terms refer to two distinct types of casual dining restaurants. Both are popular — the fast-food sector was worth $362.3 billion in 2022, and the fast-casual sector is expected to increase by $55.4 billion between 2022 and 2027.
If you’re thinking about opening a restaurant in either category, it’s important to understand the nuances of fast food vs. fast casual. That way, you can set up your business for success.
Fast-food vs. fast-casual dining: key differences to know
On the surface, fast-food and fast-casual restaurants offer a similar experience; they’re both quick and convenient. Go a little deeper, however, and you’ll discover a few significant differences between these dining options.
Fast-food franchises prioritize speed and convenience above almost anything else — the goal is to get customers in and out in as little time as possible. Every part of the fast-food restaurant, from the food selections to the design of the seats, works in service of this goal.
Fast-casual dining also comes with quick service, but not at the sacrifice of comfort. These restaurants are designed to accommodate customers who want to linger over their food.
Ambiance and customer experience
The fast-casual restaurant market prioritizes an appealing ambiance and a high-quality customer experience. That might include comfortable seating, attractive interior design, and pleasant lighting. Take the fast-casual chain Panera Bread, for example; to create an “everyday oasis” for customers, it offers free Wi-Fi, cushioned booths, and cozy decor.
At a fast-food restaurant, ambiance is a lower priority. The interior design often features hard surfaces that are easy to maintain and quick to clean. It’s important to note that many fast-food chains, including McDonald’s, are trying to embrace a more appealing interior design to avoid unfavorable comparisons with fast-casual spots.
Fast-food restaurants typically have a limited menu with fewer options. Meals usually fall into strict food type categories, such as burgers or tacos. This strategy enables the business to standardize the preparation process and use premade ingredients for faster service.
Fast-casual eateries often offer a variety of hot and cold meal options. They also tend to provide a larger selection of healthy options and fresh ingredients to cater to a wider audience. In many cases, these restaurants allow plenty of customization options for a personalized experience.
Prices and value
Fast-casual dining tends to be more expensive than fast-food restaurants. In exchange for the increased menu pricing, customers get higher-quality ingredients and more freshly prepared options. The meal experience is similar to that of a sit-down restaurant.
Compare that to fast-food restaurants, which typically use affordable frozen or prepackaged ingredients. It’s what sets Five Guys apart from Burger King; the former uses fresh, hand-formed burgers, while the latter uses frozen patties. The quality of fast food is lower, but so are the prices.
What restaurant owners need to know about guest experience
As you decide what type of restaurant to open, the customer experience should be a top priority. Restaurants in the fast-food industry might not have the same atmosphere as a fast-casual establishment, but they can still offer an exceptional experience. Your goal is to create a restaurant guests enjoy, even if they’re just dropping in for a quick burger.
Some factors that can impact the guest experience include:
- Seating options. In a fast-food establishment, seats are largely utilitarian — they keep guests comfortable for a short meal, but they’re not usually big on style. Fast-casual seating is all about comfort and versatility; you might include options for people who want to chat with a friend, work on their laptop, or study in a big group.
- Customer service. Fast-casual restaurants take a hands-on approach to customer service. You might ask staff to check on guests and bus tables frequently to make everyone feel welcome. Fast food is more hands-off; customers expect employees to leave them alone so they can enjoy a quick, peaceful meal before resuming their day.
- Consistency. Part of the appeal of both fast-food and fast-casual restaurants is the consistent experience they provide. When customers know what to expect, they can feel confident in their choice. If you can deliver the same friendly, fast service for every person, it’s easier to cultivate a loyal customer base.
- Convenience. Given the focus on speed, convenience is critical. Make sure every part of the process, from placing an order to clearing the table, is easy for customers to complete. For many restaurants, that means investing in clear signage, contactless payments, modern ordering kiosks, and a no-fuss delivery system.
As long as you meet or exceed customer expectations for the type of restaurant you’re opening, it’s possible to deliver a positive experience.
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