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Fast Casual Dining Trends

Whether you’re looking to start a new business or give your restaurant a trendy makeover in 2019, 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.

Protein Alternatives

An increasing number of customers are looking to create environmentally conscious and ethical decisions when it comes to their food choices. This means alternative diets such as veganism and vegetarianism are making their way into mainstream menus.

Substitutions and accommodations for non-meat eaters will become a thing of the past, as entire menus are being crafted around the use of protein alternatives and plant-centric entrees. In conjunction with this push, companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are producing protein alternatives that mimic the look, taste, and texture of real meat.

Fermented Foods and Probiotics

Foods that are good for your gut make their way into 2019’s top trends for fast casual restaurants. This includes fermented foods such as kimchi, miso, yogurt, and tempeh. These foods, along with locally made kombucha, offer consumers the health benefits they desire packed into minimally processed, wholesome products.

Eating In-House vs. Ordering Take-Out

While there will be no downturn in delivery, fast casual restaurants may find a surprising uptick in customers choosing to stay and eat in the dining area. That’s because more and more restaurants are placing an emphasis on the dining experience, which in turn provides customers with more social satisfaction than eating at home.

Offering Incentives and Coupons

As millennials and Generation Z emerge as large consumer groups in the foodservice industry, they’ll be looking for incentives and coupons to use at restaurants. This makes offering these types of deals a top trend for fast casual restaurants in 2019. Because members of these generations are prone to making financially conscious decisions, they’re more likely to pick a fast casual restaurant that provides deals and discounts over one that does not.

Foods in Bowls

There’s something cozy about eating out of a bowl, which is why food in bowls is on our list of top trends for 2019. While the concept isn’t new, fast casual restaurants will be using bowls to create hearty, filling dishes in unique ways. These include buddah bowls, ramen bowls, poke bowls, and smoothie bowls. In fact, bowl-centered restaurants are likely to pop up this year with entire menus dedicated to poke bowls or ramen bowls.

Moving Away from Single Use Disposables

We saw the impact Starbucks had on the foodservice industry with their 2018 decision to stop using plastic straws as well as some cities banning the use of Styrofoam, so it should come as no surprise that others in the foodservice industry are looking to reduce their use of single use disposables as well. Environmentally friendly alternatives are popping up in fast casual restaurants, such as bamboo take-out containers and utensils. Expect to see the use of plastics and polystyrene decline in the near future.

Multiple-Senses Stimulation

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

Making your food “Instagrammable” is not a new concept for foodservice, but it may come as a surprise to see that video is quickly becoming the medium of choice over photography. Social media postings including Facebook videos, Facebook and Instagram live feeds, Instagram stories, and Snapchat videos are proving consumers are interested in content that moves and makes sound. For fast casual restaurants, this means creating food that intrigues other senses besides how it tastes and looks.

Consumers want food that moves, makes a sound (such as crunching or popping), or even changes color. This could include offering glitter beer or wine, melting ball desserts, color-changing cocktails, or moving squid.

Fair Trade and Food Transparency

restaurant worker assembles sub

Increasingly, consumers want to know where their food is coming from and the ethical impact it has on the environment and labor around the world. In 2019, fast casual restaurants can expect consumers to demand food transparency on their menus. This includes where the food was sourced from, calorie counts, and allergen warnings. Products deemed “fair trade” have been bought from producers at a fair price, often in developing countries. Common fair trade food items include bananas, honey, coffee, and tea.


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
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