How healthy could fast casual dining really be?

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The fast casual dining trend has been sweeping across the globe over the past few years, but as restaurants are now trying to meet the needs of today’s health-conscious consumers, you can start to see a change. In the United States, both larger chains and independent eateries are getting in on the action and while it has crept across the pond and is now available here in the UK.  But what exactly is fast casual dining, and just how healthy is it?

What is fast casual?

A clever mash-up of a fast food approach to casual dining principles, the fast casual industry continues to thrive and evolve, meeting the needs of customers globally. The whole idea is to offer the ease and convenience of fast food, but with healthy meals and a relaxed, sit-down atmosphere. The standard is considered to be much higher than fast food, but the dining principle remains relatively the same.

While fast food restaurants do not offer table service and aim to have customers out of the premises as quickly as possible, casual dining establishments are the complete opposite. Customers enjoying a casual dining experience can choose from an extended menu and take their time, perhaps even with a crisp glass of wine, bespoke cocktail or craft beer.

So when we talk about fast casual, we are literally talking about taking elements of each to form this concept. Instead of a limited, lower-quality menu, consumers at fast casual restaurants are faced with a fresh, diverse and upscale menu. Rather than the bland, soggy bacon roll, think artisan bread, freshly toasted with chorizo and locally sourced salad. While table service is still not available in most fast casual restaurants, the service overall feels much less pressured.

Although we are used to eating a quick lunch to refuel at our desks is, there appears to be a revolution. With the rise of clean eating, consumers are becoming increasingly health conscious and, as a result, want something more than just the packaged sandwich and standard Walkers. Melissa Abbott, vice president of culinary insights at The Hartman Group told Beverage Daily: “Fast casual represents fresher, higher quality, less processed, open production, all of those things that consumers have been saying they want and haven’t been able to get from traditional sit down or QSR (quick service restaurants).”

How healthy is it?

We know it’s popular. But just how healthy is it? Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of how their food is sourced and many are swapping meals out for healthy homemade options. What fast casual dining offers is the opportunity to maintain this diet, with all the joy of going out for a meal. One of the reasons why fast casual dining has proved to be so successful is because it gives people the same feeling of indulgence they get when going out for lunch or dinner, without the guilt.

Another reason for this trend’s success may perhaps be the opportunity for customisation. Whether you’re vegan or gluten-free, eating at fast food restaurants presents certain obstacles. Due to the culture of fast food dining and the limited menus, customising your meal is usually not an option. This new trend offers people the chance to personalise, as well as much higher quality ingredients.

Despite appealing to consumers by way of offering sustainably sourced, high quality ingredients, fast casual restaurants must continue to listen to their customers. The ultimate customisation, of course, is preparing your own healthy lunch just the way you like it, however in a time poor society, there is a niche for a healthy, quick and personal lunch. Eateries need to be willing to adapt and keep their menus fresh to lure people away from their desks.