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By Alex Fainblum
If you’ve been pondering the fast casual vs fast food restaurant distinction, you’re not alone. These two business models sound similar and operate similarly. However, there are key differences between them.
While customers count on fast food titans like McDonald’s and KFC for quick meals at incredibly low prices, customers opt for fast casual dining when they want the speed of a quick service restaurant (QSR), but the quality of a full service restaurant (FSR) meal.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has blurred the lines between these two QSR models. Traditionally, fast food restaurants have been known for drive-thrus and fast casual for online ordering. Now these two QSR concepts are offering their customers both convenient options.
For those interested in opening a new QSR or making changes to an existing venue, you might be wondering: What are the distinctions between these QSR styles?
In this guide to fast casual vs fast food restaurants, you’ll learn the differences, including:
When you think of fast food restaurants, you probably think of big-name chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell. They emphasize off-premise dining and usually offer drive-thrus. They largely focus on value and speed over quality. Their menus are usually simple and not as customizable as those of fast casual restaurants.
On the other hand, Chipotle, Panera, and Sweetgreen are examples of fast casual restaurants. Their main distinctions are a higher price point in exchange for better quality food, more customizations, and an elevated on-premise dining experience.
Now that we’ve covered the main differences between fast food and fast casual dining, let’s dive into specifics.
First up in the fast casual vs fast food battle, we cover everything you need to know about what makes fast food restaurants unique.
These are the key components of the fast food experience:
Those are just some of the features of fast food restaurants that make them appealing to customers and the restaurateurs who run them.
The fast food customer experience begins with one of several ordering touchpoints: a drive-thru, an in-store counter or self-ordering kiosk for in-person ordering, or a web browser or app for off-premise ordering.
For instance, at Heart Beet Kitchen, an independent fast food restaurant in Ocean City, NJ, customers order from the walk-up window or the interior counter. Alternatively, customers can place orders through the restaurant’s online ordering platform. When orders are ready, staff members call out customers’ names to hand off meals. Patrons can then enjoy their meals on- or off-site.
While each fast food restaurant is a little bit different, these are the technologies that fast food restaurants generally rely on:
These kinds of advanced technological solutions make it possible for fast food restaurants to offer customers consistent meals at unbeatable speeds and prices.
Restaurateurs choose to open fast food concepts because of their many benefits, such as:
These perks are why there are almost 200,000 fast food restaurants in the United States alone.
Now that you’re an expert on fast food restaurants, let’s cover what makes fast casual dining distinct in the fast casual vs fast food restaurant debate.
These are the key traits that you’ll find at a fast casual establishment:
While there are some exceptions to the above, these are some of the defining features that set casual dining apart in the fast casual vs fast food debate.
The fast casual dining experience begins either at the restaurant or online.
If customers want to place an on-premise order, they do so with a staff member or through a self-ordering kiosk. At restaurants that offer make-your-own dish options, customers point to ingredients they want and staff build the order for them. Sometimes the meal is brought to the customer’s table, and sometimes the customer picks it up after paying. In some cases, the restaurant may even have its own mobile app for seamless online ordering.
For example, at Honeygrow – a tech-savvy, independently-owned fast casual chain based in Philadelphia – walk-in customers place orders through self-ordering kiosks located in the restaurant. The kiosks let customers build their own stir fry dishes and salads, or choose from pre-selected combinations from the menu. Customers pay for their meals through the kiosks, and then collect when they are ready. Honeygrow’s customers can also place orders online for pickup or delivery, throw a browser or through the restaurant’s app.
Most QSRs, including fast casual establishments, rely on these technologies to make operations efficient:
Among today’s tech-savvy diners, operating a fast casual dining concept without these tools would prove difficult.
Considering opening a fast casual restaurant? These are some of the perks of running one:
As you can gather from the above, there are plenty of good (and lucrative) reasons to run a fast casual restaurant.
The restaurant industry is constantly evolving. While fast food restaurants may be the original QSR concept, fast casual spots are making inroads in this sector. Whichever service model you currently operate, or eventually choose to operate, you’ll need technology to run your restaurant smoothly. Learn how TouchBistro can help you get there – book a live tour today.
Alex is a Marketing Coordinator at TouchBistro where she writes about food and restaurant dining experiences. She’s a lover of all things chocolate covered but her true passion lies in late-night eating.
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