A new chapter in 'quick' service: how fast food operators are upscaling to upend fast casuals
When Wendy's announced its Image Activation Program, it looked a lot like what McDonald's had been doing since 2004: upgrading its stores, creating separate dining sections, and adding flat panel TV's and Wi-Fi. In a Virginia Beach prototype, Wendy's customers will be greeted by separate dining sections, fireplaces and a more lounge-esque feel. Large chain restaurants aren't the only ones beginning to offer amenities that have been relegated in the past to the fast casual segment.
In Boston, Tasty Burger, an independent chain operated by the Franklin Group of restaurants, is a fluid operation, operating within both casual dining and fast food.
While the amenities in the new South Boston location and in the "to-go" camper in the Fenway area of Boston only include pick-up windows and no seating, relegating it as a fast food operation, its food might define it for some as a fast casual. Franklin also operates the Fenway casual dining venue of Tasty Burger, which is a small space, but includes a bar and outside patio seating.
Traditionally known as fast food operators, more burger and pizza places are starting to blur the concept of what has been conveniently known as fast food, and encroaching into the traditional fast casual space, by upscaling food or offering new amenities. Is the Wendy's transformation into a cut-above experience through its "New QSR" a wave of what will offer more competition in the quick-serve segment?
"The restaurant renovations are must haves," says Jon Weber, vice president and leader, Retail and Consumer Products, L.E.K. Consulting. " If you look across the stores for the major chains, many are outdated, and simply don’t appeal to today’s consumer." The new imaging is a signal that fast food operators are changing, and are becoming contemporary, he adds, but if it's part of the whole package, then the food is integral.
'Eat fresh' and 'have it your way'
Darren Tristano, executive vice president and industry expert for Technomic, Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice research and consulting firm, says that the New QSR offers three distinctive valued-added enhancements that are part of its distinctiveness, including a customized experience, order customization and fresh, made-to-order food.
"...consumer expectations are shifting toward ‘better-for-you fare,’” he says. "Operators have responded by offering fresh ingredients and preparing more items as made-to-order. Open kitchens allow customers to see into the preparation area and allow the experience to be more interactive." He notes too that chains like Subway have moved the food forward and are giving customers the perception of "healthy" by allowing them to customize and assemble their own orders.
The slogan that Burger King latched onto when many of us Gen X'ers were growing up, "Have it your way," is now an element of the New QSR, providing order customization to guests, suggests Tristano. "Providing options for breads, proteins, side items and toppings allows customers to put on their chef hat and have a hand in creating their very own meal, without having to do the work."
Of course, not everyone wants to wait for food prepared-to-order; operators must also evolve concepts through a blend of "on-the-go" options. Tristano offers up the example of Pret A Manger (“Ready to Eat” in French), a U.K.-based chain that has a majority of items ready to go in refrigerated cases. The growth of the chain in Chicago signals the appetite for gourmet offerings that are no-frills, and provide a quick experience for diners.
Brighter Isn't better
On the design side, what Wendy's is creating in its upgraded stores offers lessons to nearly all limited-service restaurateurs. Tom Kowalski, VP of Design at Interbrand Design Forum, a retail consultancy firm in Dayton, Ohio, says that quick-service can offer a variety of seating, and not just a "sea of tables." He says that operators can incorporate design elements that will provide a combination of booths, high-tops, banquettes and tables that can be rearranged and re-organized for larger groups, but also offer small, bar seating for singles.
Interbrand Design has major retail and foodservice clients, including limited-service chains like Au Bon Pain, Pollo Campero, Panda Express, and Papa John’s.
McDonald's second wave of store remodels is aggressive. The company will spend $2.9B this year on store upgrades and incorporating updated styling in its new build-outs. The focused, colorful lighting that some of the upgraded McDonald's stores will feature highlight another concept from expert designers: provide focused lighting rather than even, dispersed lighting throughout a restaurant.
The focused lighting is a trend that many have seen at upscale eateries in the past five years, and it’s now part of limited-service restaurants and recommended by vetted designers like Kowalski.
"Trends right now include stained concrete, which gives a casual, cool, contemporary vibe and wood-look ceramic tiles which provide warmth..." Tom Kowalski, Interbrand.
“Flooring is important," says Kowalski. "Trends right now include stained concrete, which gives a casual, cool, contemporary vibe and wood-look ceramic tiles which provide warmth, but with the functionality of being able to mop them down."
Both Tristano and Kowalski note that open kitchens are part of the new wave of QSRs, and are exemplified in the Wendy's remodels. Chipotle's chicken cooking on the grill is a signature item that is part of this trend. "Think of Chipotle and seeing the chicken on the grill, the fresh ingredients and the ability to direct how your meal is made," says Kowalski.
Will you stay a bit longer?
Kowalski says too that Wi-Fi and fireplaces are great ways to signal to customers that they can linger longer (and the settings you control limit the lingering). In Wendy's, Tristano likes the interior amenities that are inviting to the guests and says it speaks to the New QSR trend of inviting guests to dine-in (remember the preponderance of drive-thru's from the mid-century through the 70's?)
“The improved [dine-in] experience gives customers a stronger perception of the brand and creates a higher end experience," says Tristano. "Getting with the times means high definition flat panels, free Wi-Fi and more comfortable seating."
The open kitchen is also a feature that is a signal of things to come via the New QSR. “In order to upgrade the perception of the quality and price points, the open view preparation will allow Wendy’s to be more competitive with fast casual competitors like Five Guy’s Burgers and Fries and Smashburger."
Another lesson for operators: "Perception is reality," says Technomic's Tristano, and Wendy's offers both freshness and the marketplace environment. "As consumers relate to the healthy perception and the visual cues, the products will appeal through their freshness and translate to better-for-you, which will give patrons a more healthy view of the foods offered."
While journalists and consultants wonder what to call this next wave of QSRs (some have started with "Quick Casual" ─ what's the difference between "quick" and "fast" anyway?), consumers will simply revel in the fact that there is so much competition in QSR that can now enjoy the upgraded ingredients, and new environments, as they open up their laptops and bite into the juicier, better burgers.
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This is the second of a two-part series. Part I is here.
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Photos: courtesty of Interbrand Design Forum
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