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Flagstaff’s Fast-Casual Dining

A new style of restaurant is trending in the United States. The service is brisk and customers order at a counter, but it’s not fast food. The food and menu choices are more exotic and creative, but the price ranges are below full-service restaurants. The most distinctive trait though: a reluctance to offer drive-thru services.

It’s called fast casual and many such hybrid restaurants have recently opened in Flagstaff. The popular East Coast franchise Five Guys Burgers and Fries expects to open this winter in the Green Tree Shopping Plaza. This opening will follow the lead of Chipotle in January 2011 and Panda Express in July 2011.

These arrivals shouldn’t come as a surprise. According to a Technomic Top 500 Annual Report, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Chipotle and Panda Express were all in the ten fastest-growing chains with sales over $200 Million in 2010. The same report stated that the top 100 fast-casual chains grew six percent, or $18.9 billion, in 2010.

“We’re expanding fairly rapidly out west; it’s definitely an area we’re concentrating on,” Five Guys Burgers and Fries Brand Manager Mary Mcleese told Flagstaff Business News. “We’ve found customers to be receptive, people seem to be focusing more on the quality of their food than the speed.”

The fast-casual market’s recent expansions in the west take place as traditional, sit-down restaurants are reporting trouble. The National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) Restaurant Performance Index (RPI) dropped below 100 to 99.7 in July – the lowest level in 11 months and a slight indicator of projected market contraction.

Louis J. Basile Jr., owner of Arizona’s Wildflower Bread Company and NRA’s Fast Casual Industry Council chairman, provided an explanation for the fast casual market’s resiliency and growth in a time when consumers are spending less.

“I think that fast casual represents a gap in the marketplace where consumers are looking for higher-quality food and environments that are upscale, warm and welcoming. All this while representing value and everyday affordability.”

Will fast casual be able to maintain its rapid growth? With Five Guys Burgers and Fries posting a 38 percent sales growth from 2009-2010, Chipotle with 21 percent and Panda Express with 13 percent, it may be difficult. According to Basile, “I imagine fast casual continues to get more and more popular as customers continue to vote with their feet and choose this format rather than others.”

National chains are not the only restaurants adopting a fast-casual approach to serving and pricing food. Other local and regional examples include Coppa Café and Wildflower Bread Company.

Because we are in Flagstaff, people don’t respond very well when you have really good food but high prices,” Coppa Café owner Paola Fioravanti tells Flagstaff Business News. “We thought that if it was casual, people would be more willing to try new things and relax. Most people here don’t seem to like dressing up and sitting down for hours in a fancy restaurant.”

Coppa Café also has the advantage of an exotic menu. “What is really unique about us is being a European-style café – like a bistro – with good food, casual atmosphere but not too expensive.” said Fioravanti. “You don’t really have that here.”

However, there is a risk of becoming too fixated on exact definitions and uses of fast-casual principles. Ultimately, Basile concedes that customers are largely unaware of the term and its meaning, even though the model has proven so successful.

“Fast casual is something that is more internal to the restaurant industry. Customers are really just going to places that they like based on their likes, dislikes and how the place resonates. But fast casual has been the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry for the last few years and that’s where consumers are tending to spend their food dollars.” FBN


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