The verdict is in. Most consumers now have a preference for dining that balances convenience and quality.
This is a marked difference to their former obsession with convenience, which was evident in the success of fast food chains for more than half a century.
Let’s now take a look at what spurred this evolution and what it means for delis and sandwich shops moving forward.
On one extreme, there’s fast food with an obvious focus on convenience. It’s fast and fairly cheap, but the quality level is usually on the lower end of the spectrum.
That’s a trade-off most consumers were happy to make for a long time. But that’s changed somewhat in recent years. What we’re seeing now is a growing demand for quality, too.
Ashley Lutz points out in Business Insider that sales growth in the fast food industry has nearly stalled completely, with just 0.5 growth in 2016. She chalks this up to several different factors, including economic difficulties and the fact that it’s becoming cheaper to eat at home.
But there’s a one particular element that has become impossible to ignore: Consumers are tired of sacrificing quality for the sake of convenience.
Alicia Adamczyk writes in Forbes that millennials in particular have become increasingly dissatisfied with the quality level of traditional fast food chains. According to her, food quality has become a growing area of importance. Many millennials are even willing to go out of their way for a high quality meal that’s authentic and healthier — even if it comes at a higher cost.
Claire Gallam at SheKnows mentions some specific aversions to low-quality foods, including things like the presence of chemical preservatives, heavily modified ingredients and poor animal conditions.
On the other extreme, you have traditional full-service restaurants, which certainly have their place in our industry — but sit-down dining requires a time commitment that people are increasingly unwilling to make.
Reasons for this shift are open to interpretation. The lack of convenience is certainly a component. But as a press release from the American Customer Satisfaction Index suggests, it’s largely due to the fact that menu prices are rising in full-service restaurants, but customers don’t feel that the quality (or lack thereof) justifies the higher prices.
So, dining preference all boils down to convenience and quality. What consumers are looking for is the right balance between the two.
Finding Inspiration in the Rise of Fast Casual Dining
“Fast casual” is the term for dining that falls in the middle of these two extremes. Lorri Mealey of The Balance defines a fast casual restaurant as an establishment that offers the ease and convenience of fast food but has a menu with higher quality ingredients.
They also tend to have a more inviting, sit-down type of atmosphere. Or, as Bryan Reesman of QSR puts it, the design and aesthetic of fast casual restaurants is just as big a part of the appeal as the food itself. It’s just another element that helps much smaller brands compete with fast food juggernauts.
Some examples include Five Guys, Firehouse Subs and Which Wich Superior Sandwiches. These types of establishments offer consumers the best of both worlds: a quick meal as they would in a fast food place, but without the prices of a full-service restaurant. All the while, customers are ordering off of a menu with fairly high quality ingredients.
It’s important to note that fast casual dining does cost more than fast food. In fact, the team at FranchiseHelp lists the average fast food check at $5 and the average fast casual check at $12 — more than double. But they also point out that consumers are by no means hesitant to pay.
For most people, the price point and quality level that they get at a fast casual restaurant or a deli makes sense. It’s just the middle-ground they’re looking for.
A Dash of Innovation
Another reason for the popularity of fast casual establishments is the level of innovation that many of them bring. Rather than sticking with the tried-and-true models of fast food chains, there’s an element of innovation that we’re seeing among many fast casual restaurants.
Nicholas Upton at Foodservice News highlights this fact in a conversation with Penn Station East Coast Subs President Craig Dunaway. Dunaway says that menu innovation and limited-time offers highlight menu diversity and increase engagement with marketing messages.
He also says that his company tries to look at the things they do that are unique and try to play off that. They innovate, but do so carefully so as not to alienate their loyal consumers.
Finding the Sweet Spot
When you look at the trends that have unfolded in recent years, it’s clear that there’s a happy medium in which delis and sandwiches shops are best positioned to thrive. The key is to eclipse the quality level of most fast food restaurants while offering a casual, inviting atmosphere at a lower price point than full-service restaurants.
We’re finding that most consumers don’t mind paying a premium as long as the quality level is there.
If you’re looking for a specific model to base your efforts off of, fast casual dining is definitely it. This embodies both convenience and quality and is your ticket to reeling in the modern consumer.
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