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Fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC have been feeding millions of people since the early 1950s. If you manage a fast food restaurant, you know how much customers value satisfying their hunger without breaking the bank or running late to a meeting.

Also known as quick service restaurants, fast food restaurants feed their customers for an average check size of about $5. They also offer consistency: a Big Mac in New York will taste the same as a Big Mac in Italy!

But this industry segment is facing some fierce competition. Let us introduce you to the fast food restaurant’s rising competitor – the fast casual restaurant. 

Think McDonald’s meets Montana’s: the speed of a quick service restaurant, but the quality of a full service restaurant meal. Who wouldn’t want that? With a projected growth of 10%, the fast casual market in the U.S. is expected to reach $66.87 billion by 2020.

So if you’ve been thinking about opening a new restaurant, but you’re not sure which market you want to enter, keep reading to find out what sets these two segments apart.

1. Fast Casual Customers Expect Higher Quality Ingredients

If you’ve worked at a fast food restaurant, you know the drill – freeze it, reheat it, then serve it. Your customers aren’t looking for five-star quality food, and you aren’t preparing it. They just want a juicy burger, some crispy fries, and a cold soft drink to wash it down. Serve it up with some plastic cutlery and you’ll satisfy all your fast food loving customers.

But that assembly line won’t work if you run a fast casual restaurant. Your customers will still expect the speed of a quick service restaurant, but they’ll also want a meal that tastes fresh. So how do fast casual restaurants do it?

They buy locally sourced produce and prepare it onsite. Sourcing local food also allows fast casual restaurants to offer customers healthier options, such as vegetarian and vegan meals or gluten-free ingredients. The inclusion of healthier menu alternatives also allows fast casuals to market themselves as better than fast food – and consumers are eating it up.

2. You Can Charge More for a Fast Casual Meal

For just a bit more buck, you can get a lot more bang: this is your motto if you manage a fast casual restaurant. The average check size for a fast casual meal is about $12 – that’s seven dollars more than the price of a standard fast food check.

And yes, people are willing to pay those few extra dollars. In a 2015 survey, 66% of respondents said that they would pay more for higher quality, sustainable food. Most of these health-conscious consumers are millennials, and they’re hungry for some fast casual food.

But you should know that fast food restaurants have been trying to emulate fast casual restaurants, and they’re raising their prices to do it. Many fast food restaurants have adopted similar fast casual menu methods by increasing choice and raising prices on higher quality items.

As of September 2016, fast food restaurants increased the cost of their food by 2.9%. By changing a few ingredients and offering healthier options, these food chains are rolling with the fast casual punches.

3. Fast Casual Restaurants Elevate Their Level of Service

The service at fast food restaurants is very simple – it’s nearly all up to the customer. From placing the order, to picking it up, everything except cooking the actual food is done by your fast food patrons.

Just like fast food restaurants, most fast casual restaurants offer a seating area. But those that do typically elevate the level of service. Panera Bread, for example, gives their patrons the option of being served tableside — eliminating the need for customer self service that’s seen in fast food restaurants.

And if your customers are in a rush, go mobile. Tons of fast casual restaurants are partnering with mobile apps like RitualGrubhubHangry, and Postmates to help their customers skip the line. Didn’t think you could serve food faster than a fast food restaurant? Think again.

The restaurant industry is constantly evolving, and higher quality food is its newest trend. Whether you’re running a fast food chain or a fast casual cafe, you need to know what’s changing and how it’s affecting your business.

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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