All Articles Food Restaurant and Foodservice How fast-casual chains are changing the way America eats

How fast-casual chains are changing the way America eats

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Not everyone is familiar with the term “fast casual” yet, but there’s a good chance you’ve eaten at one of these restaurant chains before, such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, Subway, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and Panera Bread.

With buzzwords such as “fresh,” “healthy” and “natural,” fast-casual restaurants are those that prepare food more quickly than a regular table-service restaurant, most often right in front of the customer, with fresher and more health-conscious ingredients than an ordinary quickservice chain.

Paul Barron has been at the forefront of this rising trend for more than 16 years. As founder and host of the Web TV series “Fast Casual Nation,” a term he coined, and the “Fast Casual Nation” documentary of the fast-casual restaurant business, Barron has become the go-to man in the industry and shares some of his extensive knowledge in his book “The Chipotle Effect.”


According to Technomic, fast casual rakes in $27 billion of the $632 billion restaurant industry and is a likely cause in the decrease of quickservice sales, as shown on CNBC. Fast casual has also been covered in several other news outlets, including ABC News, TIME magazine, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal.

“Fast Casual Nation” aims to provide everyone — whether a restaurateur, chef, industry insider or foodie — with a hearty serving of up-and-coming trends, insights and behind-the-scenes videos of this fast-moving industry. A new industry insider joins the show each episode to discuss his or her firsthand insight on building their concept or brand.

The first, 12-episode season features restaurants concepts such as BurgerFi, The Cheese Course, Velvet Taco, Modmarket, Smashburger and Roam Artisan Burgers. Season 2, which will feature 18 episodes, is set to kick off in January and will run through June.


NPD Group reported fast casual as being the only restaurant segment to grow throughout the economic downturn. Other restaurant segments have been renovating and upgrading to keep up with the competition, as The Wall Street Journal reported.

The shifting restaurant consumer

Aside from this shift in market performance, we’re also seeing a progression in consumer mobile and social usage in relation to restaurants. The Restaurant Social Media Index, which tracks data on 38.2 million U.S. restaurant consumers, reported that more than 72% of these patrons use mobile phones and search a minimum of 4.3 times per month. This is impressive considering there are 105 million smartphone users in the U.S.

According to the Fast Casual Social 100, a midyear report by DigitalCoCo and the RSMI, the top five social brands in fast casual are Panera, Chipotle, Firehouse Subs, Jimmy John’s and Which Wich.

This increase in digital, social and mobile resources to connect with restaurant brands isn’t too surprising though, considering that Millennials — those born between 1982 and 1998 — make up 39% of the tracked mobile users, and are shifting into the role of “power consumer.” This demographic is the largest generation in American history. Smart brands will go where Millennials are because, like fast-casual restaurants, they are the future.

“Fast Casual Nation” is part of DigitalCoCo Productions, which also produces “Turn & Burn,” “Foodie GeekTV” and “Table 42.”

Jessica Bryant is a digital brand analyst for DigitalCoCo and leads research for the Social Insights platform. DigitalCoCo is the leading social consumer research and digital brand development firm for the restaurant and hospitality business. Jessica is a seasoned researcher with a specialty toward consumer trends and culture shifts in the restaurant business.