Fast Casual Dining Trends

Whether you’re looking to start a new business or give your restaurant a trendy makeover, consider operating as a fast casual kitchen. Filling the gap between fine dining restaurants and quick burger joints, fast casual is a category packed with potential. The market is filled with an endless amount of flavors, fusions, and cultural inspiration to fit the taste of any consumer. Discover below this year’s trends in fast casual dining to keep customers happy and potentially expand your target market.

What is a Fast Casual Restaurant?

customer at restaurant counter signs tablet with finger

A fast casual restaurant combines the sit-down service of fine dining with the convenience and quickness of fast food establishments.

Typically, fast casual restaurants boast healthier options and menu items prepared with fresher ingredients than fast food. Customers may still order at a kiosk or counter, but food is often brought out to their table where they’re encouraged to relax and enjoy eating in a comfortable dining area. Additionally, fast casual restaurants may include more customizable options than fast food places.

Popular fast casual restaurants include:

  • Panera Bread
  • Chipotle
  • Au Bon Pain
  • Noodles & Company
  • Moe's Southwest Grill
  • Boston Market

Benefits of Operating a Fast Casual Restaurant

Making the distinction between fast casual and fast food or fine dining can provide a number of benefits for your business. Below are a few ways operating a fast casual restaurant can be beneficial:

  • “Fast food” is often associated with unhealthy options, making "fast casual" a more appealing choice for many
  • Fast casual kitchens can charge more per menu item than fast food restaurants because of the additional quality of service and fresher ingredients
  • Most fast food restaurants are operated by franchises, whereas fast casual places offer both franchising opportunities and independent operations
  • Having customers pay when they order offers quick service for customers in a rush
  • Fast casual restaurants can usually accommodate larger parties better than fine dining establishments

Trends in Fast Casual Dining

While popular fast casual chains may remain timeless, there are a few ways in which your business can stay on top of customers' current wants and needs. Consider taking advantage of some or all of the trends below in your fast casual kitchen.

Incorporating Seasonal Options

With a current push for eating local and organic, it’s no surprise that a top trend in fast casual dining includes fresh, seasonal flavors. Offering a rotating, seasonal menu brings a fine dining feel to your fast casual menu. Take advantage of fresh, in-season produce to create delicious yet cost-effective seasonal dishes.

Creating a Specific Concept

Creating a niche, focused menu is one of this year’s top trends for fast casual restaurants. Instead of operating a generic burger joint or pizza place, try honing in on specific flavors, cultures, or genres. Successful fast casual concepts include specific menus such as vegan, Nepalese, organic foods, Vietnamese, smoothie bowls, and other similar ideas. Offering a niche subsection of generic genres makes your restaurant unique enough to stand out amongst the competition and pique the interest of potential customers.

Locating Near Business Parks

More and more restaurants are bringing their food closer to the consumer by operating their kitchen near or in business parks. Areas packed with corporate offices means you’re almost guaranteed a lunch rush every Monday through Friday. And with everyone on a limited lunch hour, that makes your fast casual concept especially appealing. It’ll offer business professionals a quicker option than full-service restaurants without sacrificing flavor or packing on the calories like fast food places may do.

Balancing Indulgent Flavors and Healthy Options

restaurant worker assembles sub

As customers become more and more conscious about the calories they’re consuming, your restaurant needs to adjust its menu accordingly. Find a happy medium with indulgent dishes that include healthy and flavorful ingredients. Seeing foods commonly associated with healthy, wholesome choices can give customers peace of mind when choosing items off your menu.

For example, a smoothie bowl or frozen yogurt bowl packed with fresh fruits, dark chocolate shavings, seeds, and nuts may not be a low calorie dish, but thanks to the inclusion of fresh and flavorful ingredients, health-conscious consumers may feel more comfortable ordering it.

Offering More Digital Interaction

In the age of technology, customers want to be able to browse, order, and pay for food right on their smartphone. This means integrating technology into your restaurant is one of this year’s top trends. These types of digital interactions could include:

  • Kiosks used by customers to order food
  • Online ordering or mobile pickup
  • Robots behind the counter preparing food for customers
  • Digital marketing campaigns via text message or social media ads

Using Third-Party Delivery Services

This trend pairs well with the addition of technological advances in your restaurant. Offering delivery services allows you to instantly expand your customer base and provide potential consumers with easier access to your food. Incorporating the use of third-party delivery services into your business takes away the time, hassle, and financial burden of creating your own delivery program. Instead, allow customers to peruse your menu and order delivery through mobile apps including Uber Eats, DoorDash, Postmates, and Grubhub.

Creating an Aesthetically Pleasing Atmosphere

Today more than ever, restaurants ranging from fast food joints to fine dining kitchens are putting more thought into the appearance of their food and, maybe more surprisingly, their restaurant’s decor. That’s because today’s consumers are influenced by what they see on social media sites including Instagram and Twitter. Creating a unique, aesthetically pleasing, or especially photogenic dining area encourages consumers to take and share photos of their experience with social media followers. This then draws curious consumers into your restaurant to have their own dining experience, or photo shoot, in your place.

Plating and Presenting Foods with Vibrant or Unique Colorings

closeup of an iphone taking pictures of a colorful plate of food

Along the same lines, creating especially photogenic presentations of your fast casual food can make your place well worth a visit. While fast casual restaurants are on stricter time constraints than their sit-down service counterparts, you can still get creative with presenting vibrantly colored or exotic-looking dishes.

Incorporate unusual ingredients, such as spices or fruits, to transform dishes into eye-catching colors. For example, create pitch-black foods such as ice cream, waffles, or macarons with the help of activated charcoal. Or, use matcha powder to create bright green smoothies, lattes, cakes, and ice cream.

Fast casual restaurants are in the enticing position to create unique flavors and offer fresher or more exotic ingredients than fast food kitchens. Taking advantage of this year’s top fast casual food trends can help your business stand out in a crowd. Pair your fresh and exciting menu options with any of the above suggestions to help grow your customer base and turn curious consumers into weekly regulars.

Posted in: Foodservice Trends | By Rachel Jenkins

What Is Caster Sugar?

Sugar is an ingredient that we see everywhere. We're all probably most accustomed to granulated white sugar, sometimes referred to as "table sugar," but there are several kinds of sugar that are suited for a variety of different purposes. Among them is caster sugar, which you may see in your baking or cocktail recipes. To learn more about caster sugar and how you can substitute it when you're in a pinch, keep reading.

What Is Caster Sugar in the US?

"Caster sugar" is a term used in the UK as well as the US, and in both cases, it refers to a sugar that is ground to a consistency between granulated and powdered sugar in coarseness.

Caster sugar in a baking recipe

In the United States, caster sugar is often called superfine sugar, baker’s sugar, or bar sugar.

What Is the Difference Between Caster Sugar and Granulated Sugar?

Caster sugar has more finely ground crystals than granulated sugar, which means that it can dissolve faster than granulated sugar in creamed mixtures, whips, and more. Caster sugar is often called for in recipes for delicate baked goods like meringues, souffles, and sponge cakes.

Because of its ability to dissolve easily, caster sugar is also frequently used for sweetening drinks. Many bartenders use caster sugar in place of simple syrup when making cocktails.

What Is the Difference Between Caster Sugar and Powdered Sugar?

Powdered sugar, also called confectioner’s sugar or icing sugar, is more finely ground than caster sugar. In the United States, powdered sugar also typically contains an anti-caking agent, like cornstarch, that makes up 3-5% of the sugar. Because it does not have the same powdery texture, caster sugar does not contain any agents to prevent clumping.

What Can I Use as a Caster Sugar Substitute?

Caster sugar in a cocktail recipe

The best caster sugar substitute is to make caster sugar yourself. If your recipe calls for caster sugar and you don’t have any on hand, it may be tempting to use powdered sugar as a caster sugar replacement. However, using powdered sugar instead of caster sugar could give your baked goods a thin texture that may even ruin your recipe. Substituting standard granulated sugar could have the opposite effect, giving your recipe a grainy texture. As a result, it's best to make your own.

Here’s how to make caster sugar:

  1. For every 1 cup of caster sugar that your recipe calls for, add 1 cup plus two teaspoons of granulated sugar to a clean coffee or spice grinder, food processor, or blender.
  2. Grind the granulated sugar for only a few seconds, until the sugar is finer in texture, but it is not fine enough to form a powder that starts to clump together.
  3. For added precision, run your homemade caster sugar through a fine strainer before adding it to your recipe.

Caster sugar is useful for making smooth and consistently sweetened baked goods, and it is great for effortlessly adding sweetness to beverages. Next time your recipe calls for caster sugar and you don't have any, don't reach for the powdered sugar. Instead, try making your own caster sugar in a blender, food processor, or spice grinder.

Posted in: Bars & Breweries | Bakeries | By Christine Potts

Green Catering Tips: How to Make Your Catering Business Environmentally Friendly

Going green may have started as a trend, but it’s quickly becoming a way of life for conscientious consumers and business owners alike. By making your catering business more environmentally friendly and energy efficient, you can both appeal to a wider customer base and help reduce your business’s negative environmental impacts. Below are a few ways you can go green with your catering operations.

Serve Environmentally Friendly Foods

Since food is the most important part of your catering business, it’s the perfect place to start when trying to implement a few eco-positive changes.

Offer More Vegetarian or Vegan Dishes

While this may surprise some, vegetable farming is a more sustainable practice than animal farming. Producing meat such as beef, pork, or poultry involves more land and water use than produce. Additionally, raising animals such as cows naturally produces a large number of greenhouse gases that get released into the atmosphere.

While you may still choose to offer a few meat options, consider cutting down your menu and implementing more plant-based proteins including lentils, chickpeas, potatoes, quinoa, and nuts.

Incorporate a Seasonal Menu

Not only does cooking seasonally allow you to use the freshest, tastiest produce available, but it also cuts down on your business’s negative environmental impact. Incorporating seasonal produce into your menu reduces the amount of resources needed to transport food from the farm to your serving tray. With a shorter distance to travel, your food is creating less gas emissions and logging less food miles in gas-guzzling vehicles.

Reduce Food Waste

Reducing food waste is both cost-effective and environmentally friendly. Here are a few ways to reduce food waste in your catering business:

  • Track inventory over time and adjust order amounts with a food waste audit
  • Get creative and repurpose ingredients to make new dishes
  • Donate leftovers from your event
  • Take advantage of overripe fruits and vegetables by making sauces, stocks, breads, and desserts
  • Create a compost pile for food that’s past the point of serving

Use Sustainable Servingware

Disposables can become a large source of pollution in nearby oceans, lakes, and landfills. While they’re an important part of any catering business, consider making the following changes to your servingware.

Incorporate Biodegradable Disposables

Biodegradable disposables offer a sustainably sourced alternative to foam or paper products. Not only are these products environmentally friendly, but they provide a rustic, trendy feel.

Opt for disposables made with PET plastic, which is biodegradable and recycled easily. Or, opt for bamboo utensils and bowls. Unlike other wood products, bamboo is an abundant (and sometimes invasive) plant species. Plus, these bamboo products are biodegradable.

Switch to Reusable Tableware

Swapping out disposable tablecloths, napkins, and flatware for reusable tableware is both environmentally friendly and an ideal option for upscale catered events. Cloth tablecloths and napkins are perfect for use at formal weddings, banquets, cocktail hours, and luncheons. If you have the space to wash dishes and linens, steering clear of disposables is your most sustainable option.

Create a Beverage Station

trendy beverage station with clear bowl of fruit

Instead of offering guests individual cans of soda or bottles of water, try setting up a beverage station instead. Take advantage of reusable beverage dispensers to limit your use of disposable plastics. This more sustainable option can even allow you more creativity in what you serve. For example, you can infuse beverages like tea or lemonade with fresh fruits and herbs.

Separate Recyclable Materials

Recycling is a great way for foodservice establishments of all types, including catering companies, to be more environmentally friendly. However, recycling at catering venues can require a few simple additional steps:

  • Train staff about proper waste management practices
  • Ensure staff understands what can be set aside to be recycled
  • If guests are clearing their own place settings, offer a separate receptacle for recyclables
  • Clearly mark your recycling containers and all-purpose trash cans

Look for Energy Efficient Equipment and Supplies

Along with food and disposables, the equipment you prepare and deliver food with can have an impact on your catering company’s overall sustainability efforts.

Consider Using Energy Star Qualified Equipment

Energy Star qualified equipment is built to use much less energy than their non-compliant counterparts. Since this energy-efficient equipment ranges anywhere from refrigerators and freezers to fryers and stovetops, you can equip your entire catering kitchen in low-energy, high-efficiency equipment.

Clean with Greener Cleaning Products

Once service is over, consider keeping your green streak going by using more environmentally friendly cleaning products. Normal products may contain bleach or other chemicals that are harsh on the environment, especially if you’re catering an outdoor event. Many green cleaning supplies offer the same cleaning power but with less effects on the surrounding area.

Keep Your Vehicle Serviced Regularly

electric car being charged

More than a typical brick-and-mortar establishment, catering companies use vehicles regularly to transport food, equipment, and staff to and from event locations. While it may not always be a top priority, regularly maintaining these vehicles can stop older cars or trucks from emitting excess pollution. And if you’re in the market to upgrade your ride, consider all-electric vehicles or hybrids.

There are lots of small changes you can make to an existing catering business to be more eco-friendly. If you’re starting a new business with the Earth in mind, feel free to implement as many of these changes as possible when writing your business plan. Whether your business has been around for years or is brand new, don’t forget to advertise the ways you’re contributing to a greener planet. Many like-minded customers will appreciate your efforts and be more likely to choose your business over one that isn't environmentally friendly.

Posted in: Catering Tips | Eco-Friendly Tips | By Rachel Jenkins

Full Course Meals Explained

Many cultures enjoy full course meals with variations of courses, different customs, and unique assortments of food. Full course meals have a rich, diverse history from many regions that is a result of evolving eating traditions over time. To the Western world, the full course meal might bring to mind lavish dinner parties or long meals at a fancy restaurant. But how many courses should be in a full course meal, and what should each course consist of? Below, we provide basic information about full course meals in the tradition of Western cultures and go through typical meal course sequences.

What Is a Meal Course?

A meal course is a single food item or a set of food items served at once, such as a sandwich, soup and crackers, or steak and mashed potatoes. An average meal consists of one or more meal courses. The most basic full course meal features 2 or 3 of the following courses: an appetizer, a main dish, and a dessert.

large 9 course meal dining table setting with main course plates of food and water goblets

What Is a Full Course Meal?

A full course meal is an expansion and variation of a 3 course meal. Typically, full course dinners have four or more meal courses with the most extravagant dinners comprising of up to 12 courses. Full course meals normally begin with precursors to a main dish, such as an amuse-bouche or soup, followed by the main course(s), and they are finished off with sweets, coffee, and tea.

Full course meals frequently take place at someone’s home, at a venue, or at a restaurant. They are customarily enjoyed in the afternoon or evening for a special occasion. In both upscale restaurants and casual eateries, guests can opt for a full course meal by ordering multiple dishes to come out at separate times.

Sample Sequences for Up to 12 Meal Courses

A common and logical way for your full course meal to proceed is by starting with light plates, continuing with richer dishes, and finishing off with small and delicate items. Below are sample full course meal sequences, but you can choose which meal courses you would like to include on your menu.

Course Length Courses
12 Course Meal Hors d'oeuvres, Amuse-Bouche, Soup, Appetizer, Salad, Fish, First Main Course, Palate Cleanser, Second Main Course, Cheese Course, Dessert, Mignardise
10 Course Meal Hors d'oeuvres, Soup, Appetizer, Salad, Fish, Main Course, Palate Cleanser, Second Main Course, Dessert, Mignardise
9 Course Meal Hors d'oeuvres, Soup, Appetizer, Salad, Fish, Main Course, Palate Cleanser, Dessert, Mignardise
8 Course Meal Hors d'oeuvres, Soup, Appetizer, Salad, Main Course, Palate Cleanser, Dessert, Mignardise
7 Course Meal Hors d'oeuvres, Soup, Appetizer, Salad, Main Course, Dessert, Mignardise
6 Course Meal Hors d'oeuvres, Soup, Appetizer, Salad, Main Course, Dessert
5 Course Meal Hors d'oeuvres, Appetizer, Salad, Main Course, Dessert
4 Course Meal Hors d'oeuvres, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert
3 Course Meal Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert

12 Course Meal Menu

Below are explanations of the courses that may comprise a 12 course meal as well as dish suggestions for each course.

  1. Course One - Hors d'oeuvres. Since this course is typically served during a cocktail hour or as guests are arriving, hors d’oeuvres are usually finger-foods that can be held in the hand.
    • Goat cheese crostini with fig-olive tapenade
    • Zucchini fritters
    • Shallot and pancetta tortilla crisps
  2. Course Two - Amuse-bouche. This can be translated from French to mean “amuse the mouth” or more generally, to please guests’ palates with a small flavorful taste. Frequently, this might serve to stimulate the appetite or simply hint at flavors to come in the next meal course(s). In restaurants, this is normally a complementary item specifically chosen by the chef.
    • Sweet potato chips with goat cheese and caviar
    • Caprese bites with basil vinaigrette
    • Pea soup served in a shot glass or espresso cup
  3. Course Three - Soup. As with all of your courses, a classic idea is to relate your soup course to the season. It's always smart to avoid soups that are too hearty so guests don’t fill up for the rest of the meal.
    • Cold melon and basil soup
    • Pumpkin sage bisque
    • Tuscan white bean and roasted garlic soup
  4. Course Four – Appetizer. In many parts of Europe, this course is referred to as the "entree" because it introduces the main courses in the meal. It is usually served on serving trays or small appetizer plates and features small cuts of meat, seasonal vegetables, starches, and sauces.
    • Charred broccoli with shishito peppers and pickled onions
    • Mushrooms stuffed with Pecorino Romano, garlic, and bread crumbs
    • Candied carrots with honey, cumin, and paprika
  5. Course Five - Salad. This course is usually an assortment of raw vegetables with a flavorful dressing. In some parts of Europe, salad is served after the main course, but it is also common to serve salad before.
    • Garden salad with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and tart vinaigrette
    • Chopped Thai salad with peanut dressing
    • Greek salad with olives, lettuce, red onions, and feta cheese
  6. Course Six – Fish. This dish is a flavorful light protein before the main courses.
    • Grilled salmon with a soy sauce marinade
    • Lemon garlic tilapia
    • Crispy trout with a parsley-caper vinaigrette
  7. Course Seven – First main course. The first main dish is often a white meat, such as chicken, duck, or turkey.
    • Spicy Thai basil chicken
    • Roasted duck with an orange-bourbon glaze
    • Smoked turkey with a honey glaze
  8. Course Eight – Palate Cleanser. This is like a reset for your taste buds. Its purpose is to remove residual tastes from the mouth before the next course.
    • Sorbet (lemon, melon, or mint)
    • Prosecco
    • Water with lemon
  9. Course Nine - Second main course. Typically, the second main course is a red meat, such as premium beef, lamb, or venison.
    • Stuffed lamb breast with lemon, ricotta, and oregano
    • Grilled flatiron steak with rosemary potatoes
    • Herb-crusted venison medallions
  10. Course Ten - Cheese course. Create a platter of different cheeses along with items to accompany them.
    • Include a variety of cheese textures and flavors, such as aged, soft, firm, and blue cheeses
    • Choose a selection of breads and crackers
    • Provide companion items, such as jams, chutneys, spicy mustards, caramelized onions, candied nuts and pistachios
  11. Course Eleven - Dessert. Usually accompanied by a glass of dessert wine or coffee and tea, this is a sweet and decadent course.
    • Rich flourless chocolate cake with a glass of sweet port wine
    • Lemon creme brulee with dry white wine
    • Fruit tarts and berries with champagne
  12. Course Twelve – Mignardise. At the end of the meal, you can serve a mignardise, which is a tiny, bite-sized dessert or pastry served with tea, coffee, port, brandy, or scotch.
    • Miniature butter madeleine biscuits
    • Small pieces of chocolate
    • Bite-sized macarons

How to Create a Full Course Meal Menu

meal courses on table featuring plates of food, silverware, and hands serving food

Preparing for a full course meal can seem like a daunting task, especially if it's for a large crowd. However, if you follow a central theme or cuisine when deciding what will be on your menu, it is much easier to come up with your dishes. Below are some tips for creating your menu.

  • Choose a theme, cuisine, or set of flavors to base your meal around. This makes it easier to come up with a menu and ensures continuity throughout the courses.
  • Consider basing your full course meal on the season, or feature cuisines from one or several regions.
  • Whatever theme you choose for your meal, ensure that it can provide a solid main course, and work the rest of the courses and theme elements around it.

Quick Tips for Serving a Full Course Meal

classy table setting for 5 course meal with wine glasses and hors d'oeuvres

The way you serve or enjoy a full course meal is up to your discretion and can be as casual or formal as you prefer. Below are some tips to curate a full course meal along with information on traditional etiquette.

  • Provide a goblet of water and a glass of wine for each guest.
  • Each course requires its own dinnerware and silverware, so set your table based on the number of courses in your meal.
  • Guests will first use the outermost utensils and work their way in towards the plate as the courses progress.
  • Remove each course plate before bringing out the next course.
  • Don’t wait too long between serving each course.
  • Traditional etiquette says that each plate should be cleared (from the right side of each guest) before serving another (to the left side of each guest).
  • If you do not have servers at your dinner party, have guests pass the dishes from the left, so they can easily serve themselves, since most people are right-handed.
  • Many table settings will have a charger plate that serves as a base setting on top of which dinnerware for each course is placed. The plate is only cleared when dessert is served.

Ultimately, you can serve a meal as creatively or traditionally as you'd like. You can include as little as one course and up to as many as you have time and energy for. Full course meals provide ample opportunity for hosts, chefs, and restaurants alike to show off their talents and tastes while offering an enjoyable and decadent dining experience that guests will remember.

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