Everyone’s got to eat. But food today has taken on another kind of importance beyond nourishment.
Driving that mouthwatering frenzy throughout the US and the rest of the world is a newfound appreciation for simple, authentic flavors. Whether those flavors come from a generations-old family recipe or from the street food vendors of Singapore, what diners are seeking is an authentic experience.
This is the key to understanding the rise of fast-casual dining — which is itself an extension of the convenience, quality and community that first made the deli popular in America.
Below are four tips fast-casual restaurateurs must be mindful of to keep these hungry diners coming back.
“Authentic” doesn’t have to mean expensive or exclusive. Rather, accessibility is key. Most Americans aren’t going to be able to fly to Shanghai for soup dumplings — or to New York for deli-fresh pastrami, for that matter.
But if a local restaurateur is serving up her take on either of those dishes at a fair price, she can have a line of customers out the door.
Consider Peter and Elaine Kinsella, owners of the Spanish-inspired Lunya in Liverpool and Manchester. They tell The Caterer that they take steps to ensure patrons don’t feel out of place in their restaurants — regardless of whether they’re drinking wine at £1,500 a bottle or sipping on a beer. For the Kinsellas, casual is more about feeling relaxed. Comfortable furniture, good music and a warm aesthetic matters most.
All people from all budgets crave delicious food. Recognizing this fundamental truth has turned some of the country’s best fast-casual eateries into dining destinations.
“Food has replaced music at the heart of the cultural conversation,” writer Eugene Wei says.
Carol Ann Flint writes that in a fast-casual setting “hushed reverence” has given way to informal conviviality. Diners want to see inside the kitchen and be a part of the whole experience.
Social media have played a big role in creating this experience. Hundreds of thousands of food bloggers and Instagrammers every day celebrate the gastronomy of a given city or a given culture. Case in point:
This all fuels America’s healthy appetite for authentic, affordable dining. As Derek Thompson at the Atlantic says, “For first time in US history, Americans are spending more money dining out than in grocery stores.”
Flint coins the term “fast-casual plus” to describe places such as Tlaloc and The Counter in San Francisco. These places have simple service models: Servers usually bring food to the table, even if customers order at the bar. The price points can afford to be a little higher (still under $20), and kitchens can go lean with but a handful of high-quality choices.
This simplicity translates to big value for business owners. In many cases, guests can pay for and collect their meals at the point of purchase. With the service operations simplified, fast-casual restaurants are spending less on staff.
Chefs don’t need to spend high on a vast menu, either. Instead, they must simply keep ingredients fresh and options few. This means better quality control, less food waste and lower overhead costs for your kitchen.
When diners begin to feel more adventurous, this opens up business opportunities for all restaurateurs. So, don’t think of the ramen place beside you or the corner burrito shop as competitors. Instead, thinking of them as all part of one big rising tide.
The proof is in the numbers: According to The Restaurant Business, the fast-casual segment is enjoying double-digit growth in the US. That’s what puts a chain such as Slim Chickens — known for Southern hospitality and serving made-to-order food in a “shack” — on a trajectory to achieve its mission of opening 600 restaurants across the country in the next decade.
Of course, we would be hard-pressed to find a more diverse offering than what’s available here in New York City. It’s the home of sights and smells and plenty of great food. The richness of options available makes the city itself a dining destination.
And that richness provides diners many opportunities to do a culinary deep dive. Say a customer works in the Financial District, and he tries a jerk chicken wrap at Veronica’s Kitchen for lunch on Monday. That might open up a whole new world of gastronomic curiosity, and by Thursday night he’s out with friends in Brooklyn at Junior’s.
There are so many diverse offerings in New York that it would take several lifetimes to try them all — but that’s precisely what makes diners want to hit the streets to find the eats.