Customizability Is a Key to Success at Fast-Casual Chains

Fast-casual remains the hottest segment of the restaurant business, according to market research firm Technomic. “Of the 250 chains featured in this year’s [Top 250 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report], more than 90 had year-over-year sales and unit growth rates both in the double digits.”

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Smashburger and Wendy’s feature brewed Honest Tea

Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, said that “customizability has become a hallmark of successful fast-casual chains and is firmly in place as an expectation among consumers looking either to trade up from traditional fast food or down from casual dining.”

Fast-casual pizza, bolstered by the resounding success of build-your-own concepts such as Blaze Pizza, MOD Pizza, and Pie Five Pizza Co., saw its sales grow at a blistering cumulative clip of 36%, according to Technomic. Chicken-focused chains also excelled in 2015, growing as a group at a rate of 16% on the shoulders of brands such as Zaxby’s, Wingstop, and Raising Cane’s, said Tristano.

Cumulative sales for the Top 250 fast-casual chains were up 11.6%, a moderate decrease from the 13.5% growth rate observed in 2014, according to Tristano. “Aggregate unit growth also clocked in at 9.6%, essentially remaining level with the prior year’s mark of 9.5%.” The entire category grew by 11.4% in 2015, almost doubling the growth rate of any other dining segment, according to Technomic.

On-trend beverages are important to the appeal of fast-casual restaurants. In an article titled “Fast-Casual Keeps Beverage Menus Simple,” Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN) asked Honey Butter Fried Chicken co-executive chefs and managing partners Christine Cikowski and Joshua Kulp about their premium loose leaf teas. The popular brewed teas include pomegranate green, lemon berry and lemon citron flavors. The lemon citron is the base of the house sweet tea and a mixer for a vodka cocktail called Tipsy Tea.

Higher-end teas are part of an overall foodservice tea market pegged at $20 billion and growing, according to Packaged Facts. Three years ago, Smashburger introduced organic Honest Tea brewed in-store and the following year Wendy’s did the same.

Tea is in style at Eataly Chicago, celebrity chef Mario Batali’s sprawling Italian marketplace and restaurant complex. Mint and green teas are thriving, black tea is slowing slightly and herbal teas are “kicking up a bit,” Sean Akers, Eataly grocery manager told NRN.

Iced tea, popular at upscale fast-casual eateries.

Iced tea, popular at upscale fast-casual eateries.

Adds Akers, “We have noticed that our guests prefer cold, ready-to-drink tea, especially as an alternative to soda.”

“Tea took a backseat to coffee for a long time,” says Christian Eck, tea specialist and event services manager at the Park Hyatt Washington hotel in the nation’s capital. “But now there is a lot of experimentation going on with tea.”

Lemonade is more prevalent in fast casual than in traditional quick service restaurants, according to Datassential market research, suggesting that variations of the Arnold Palmer mix of tea and lemonade will find success. Adding pitted fruit such as peaches and cherries are popular ways to upgrade iced and sweet teas.

 Source:, Nation’s Restaurant News