April 12, 2018 Jen Maltby

Do You Know What Your Customers Are Really Saying? sign

As a working mom with two, busy, school-aged kids, the fast-casual dining experience is a frequent entrant in my meal-time routine, and I am not alone – the segment is one of the fastest growing in the dining industry.

“’As a society, we are speeding up and moving toward speed- oriented food, which was fast food,’” says Jonathan Maze, senior financial editor for Nation’s Restaurant News. ‘Now, we go to fast-casual restaurants.’ America, it appears, is no longer a Fast Food Nation. It’s a Fast-Casual Nation.”

~ The Washington Post, August 2017

But, as the segment continues to balloon in size, with new entrants hitting the market every time I turn around, how do you stand out and serve the needs of each unique audience?

With those questions in mind, we conducted proprietary research* to explore opportunity areas for specifically reaching families in this space. Past research has revealed that fast-casual restaurants are getting much better at providing the must-haves for parents: changing tables, booster seats, and the occasional crayons and paper for entertainment. But, we also heard about three areas where continued innovation could help brands stand out in this increasingly crowded space.

  • KEEP considering the kids menu. I have talked about this more than once before here. Kid’s menus, by and large, are entirely predictable. Now, believe me, I get that the majority of meals served to kids will be the standard grilled cheese or mac and cheese staples. Taking those off the menu would make no sense whatsoever. But, when 80% of parents with kids in the household (vs. 32% of parents with no kids in the household) say that an improved children’s menu is something they would like to see fast casual restaurants provide, it’s hard to ignore the need to put more consideration into what you are offering kids. I personally am always excited to see more thoughtful side dishes offered like hard boiled eggs, carrots and ranch dressing or yogurt instead of just french fries. But, why can’t kids also have seasonal specials on their menu? Or perhaps a “tasting menu” sprinkled with a mix of mini-adult meal options and kid favorites to get kids to branch out and try new things?
  • Entertainment is still important. Though more often than not kids seem to be at the table staring at some form of electronic device. Speaking as a parent, this is not usually what I want my child to be doing. I would rather they use their creativity and their brains offline to entertain themselves while eating or waiting for food. It appears I am not alone in this perspective, as 75% of parents with kids in the household would like to see more diverse activities to entertain children at their favorite fast-casual restaurants. We all know crayons and tick-tack-toe are great, but are their ways to stand out and show you are really thinking differently about what kids might want? How about choosing pictures for kids to color that match to the time of year – like bunnies in the spring, snowmen in the winter, leaves in the fall, etc. – instead of the exact same coloring sheet every time? And what about those older kids who don’t want to color for fear of looking “like a baby” – could you provide another means of off-line entertainment like Play-Doh, Wiki-Sticks, or more challenging word games, riddles or jokes for them to read?
  • Technology isn’t always bad. Just because parents may want their children to disconnect, using technology as a means to expedite the experience is still a positive. For example, have you ever FINALLY taken your seat, gotten your kids settled with their meals, their drinks, their napkins, and quelled the whining about who is sitting where, who is cold, who is hot and who has an itch, and realized you FORGOT to get yourself a drink, or that you never ordered that side of bread? The very thought of getting up with everyone again and starting over is nearly paralyzing. This is likely why 69% of parents with kids at home think table-side technology that can help increase efficiency when ordering, re-ordering and paying is such a good idea. And I would be willing to bet the investment in technology will also ensure increased check sizes from customers.

I’ll close with a final, personal example from dinner with my girls at the newest fast-casual option in town – Cava. We arrived, ordered and got to our seats with only a momentary breakdown from my youngest (success!), then my oldest realized she didn’t have her favorite condiment – Sriracha.  I asked at the counter if they had it or anything like it and they said they didn’t. Yet, when they saw the down trodden look on my daughter’s face, the woman manning the register ran to the back and found the large bottle generally reserved for making their sauces and quickly handed it to my daughter. She happily used and returned it to the counter when my generally quiet and reserved 11-year-old  sat down and exclaimed, “I love it here! They make me feel like I am famous!” And just like that, this new fast-casual entrant just landed itself at the TOP of our stand-out, go-to list.

The above provide three opportunities for fast casual restaurants to find their own “Sriracha moments” but the moral of the story is that fast casuals need to continue to think about ways to provide families (and any audience they want to own) with the things that matter most to them in the moment. People will forever rely on fast-casual dining, but they are also going to continue to require more of brands if they want to stand out.


*Note: Survey research hosted by ProdegeMR. Responses gathered from 751 Adults age 18+; balanced to US Census on age, gender, region and household income


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