Fast casual restaurants are the fastest-growing and most competitive segment in today’s dining world, according to restaurant industry reports.
What is “fast casual” and why is it so popular? Some examples, that got their start in Utah and then morphed into chains — include Café Rio, Costa Vida, Rumbi Island Grill, Café Zupas, Kneaders, Blue Lemon, and Barbacoa. There are tons of other national chains such as Noodles & Company, Mo’s Southwest Grill, Chipotle, and Wing Stop.Locally owned places that could be deemed “fast casual” include Plates & Palates in Bountiful, Thai Curry Kitchen in Ogden, Holy Smoke BBQ in Layton, The Old Grist Mill in Kaysville, Ogden, Logan and Brigham City; Brixton’s in Ogden and Farmington, Hugs in Layton, and CousCous Grill Express in Farmington.
Also known as “quick casual,” these are hybrids between fast food and sit-down, full-service restaurants. Here’s what makes it different:
- It’s usually faster than sit-down service, because you order at a counter instead of waiting for staff to come to your table to take your order, bring your food and take care of your bill.
- The menu is considered higher quality than fast food, often with more unusual flavors, and interesting ingredients. Most offer kids meals too.
- In many cases, you watch your order as it’s made, assembly-line style, so you can customize it.
- Fast casual meals typically cost around $8-10 — more than fast food. But they are usually less than full-service restaurants; partly because the standard 15-20 percent restaurant tip isn’t expected.
- Sometimes your meal comes on real plates or bowls (Café Zupas, Pei Wei, Rumbi, Noodles & Company, Blue Lemon, MAD Greens) and other times it’s in a disposable take-out container (Café Rio, Costa Vida, Chipotle, Brixton’s, CousCous Grill). Much of the business is take-out for today’s on-the-go lifestyles.
One of the newer fast casual chains to come to Northern Utah is Blaze Pizza in Farmington, which applies the customized assembly line to pizza. No need to negotiate with friends or family members who don’t like mushrooms or kalamata olives. You get your own personal pizza, and you can specify as many toppings as you wish, such as artichoke hearts, pepperoni, pesto, barbecue sauce, chicken, bell peppers, roasted red peppers, sauteed onions or zucchini, and many, many more.
The pizza is big enough that you’ll want to take home the leftovers for a second meal.
Utah’s success in growing fast-casual chains is no surprise to Ben Craner of Cafe RIo.
“Utah is very open to new flavors and tastes, and is actually pretty sophisticated when it comes to dining and food,” Craner said. “We talk about Utah being cutting edge when it comes to technology, and it’s the same demographic of families with kids who are eating at fast casual restaurants.”
The fast casual restaurant fits today’s busy lifestyles and desire for healthier food choices, said James Worthington, chief executive officer of Kneaders, with 47 locations in six different states, including one that recently opened in my hometown of Kaysville. His parents, Gary and Colleen Worthington, started the first Kneaders in 1997, selling made-from-scratch artisanal European heath breads and a handful of pastries and soups.
“It’s all about the bread, and each store still makes it from scratch every day,” said James Worthington. “”When I was 16 or 17 years old, we had a small commercial oven in our garage, and we’d go down and make loaves of bread in it. We began thinking we wanted to open a store in Orem.”
The company opened its second location in 2000, and a third in 2003.
“By then, we realized it would be something we would enjoy growing, ” said Worthington. “We’re a much different company today than we were five years ago.”
Some of the company’s most popular items are French toast, the Turkey Bacon Avocado Salad and the Turkey Bacon Avocado Sandwich. Cream of Broccoli is the most popular soup, with other favorites being Artichoke Portobello and a Three-Cheese Cauliflower.
“A lot of our soups are made from scratch. There are some where we’ll use some soup bases to help get a consistent product,” he said.
“The fast casual restaurant segment has become more saturated, but there’s always room to grow for those who are willing to innovate and adapt to change,” said Worthington.
The original Café Rio was founded in St. George in 1997 by chef Steve Stanley of Austin, Texas, and his wife, Tricia Stanley. The hand-made tortillas and from-scratch sauces were a step up from Mexican fast food. But instead of waiting for a server to take your order, you walked through the serving line and watched as the staff made your burrito or salad to your specifications.
The Stanleys had opened six locations by 2004, when they sold to Bob Nilsen, former president of Burger King Corp. and now Cafe Rio’s chairman of the board.
Since then, Café Rio has grown to 100 restaurants in 11 states.
“Fast casual dining has become more competitive,” said Ben Craner, Cafe Rio’s chief marketing officer. “People want to understand more about their food — is it healthy and nutritious, prepared for my wants and needs, and with a complexity of flavors? We were ahead of the curve, because we had a full working kitchen and we were making the food from scratch in front of the guests. They can choose the type of beans, and dressing, and other options so it’s a more tailored dining experience.”
When the recession hit in 2008, fast casual restaurants filled a niche for people who had to cut back from high-end restaurants, but they didn’t want to settle for fast food burgers or chicken nuggets.
And while many restaurants stopped expanding during the recession, Café Rio saw the opportunity and bought key locations that other companies were passing up, Craner said. So the company grew from 40-50 restaurants to almost double that.
‘We had a great product, and we figured its still a great value even at a time of a recession,” Craner said.
In Utah, the top-selling Cafe Rio menu item is a Sweet Pork Burrito, served enchilada style with black beans, said Craner. “And if they get a salad, it’s Sweet Pork, with black beans and creamy tomatillo dressing.”
Although Sweet Pork is a signature favorite, the company got requests for a pork option with more heat and less sweet. So, Spicy Green Chili Pork was added to the menu in July 2016, with roasted habanero peppers. They also added a hotter habanero sauce to their assembly options.
But not all fast casual concepts have evolved into chains. Holy Smoke BBQ in Layton opened about 10 years ago, and owner Jeff Ray has no plans to expand his popular order-at-the-counter eatery.
“This one has kept us busy enough,” he said, noting that he’s at the restaurant six days a week, for 12-18 hours a day.
Customers order at the counter, and the staff brings to their food to their table.
“It’s not unusual to order at a counter at a barbecue place, and this has worked out well for us,” he said. “We thought about making it sit-down service in the evening, but I was afraid it would confuse people.”
The ambience is Old West, with saddles and branding irons. The St. Louis pork spareribs, beef brisket, pulled pork, smoked chicken and catfish can be doctored up with house-made sauces such as “Sweeter Than Your First Kiss,” “Better Than My Honeymoon.” Some sauces are from different barbecue regions of the country, such Alabama’s mayo-based white sauce, the vinegar-y East Carolina sauce, or the Southwest favorite, Chipotle Lime.
“Being located near Hill Air Force Base, we get people from all over coming in, and they like having the different regional sauces,” Ray said.
While Holy Smoke is down-home, Blue Lemon is a more sophisticated version of fast casual, with items like Jalapeno Lime Glazed Salmon or Black Bean Ravioli with micro greens, served on gleaming white plates instead of disposables. Patrons order and pay at the register, and fill their own drinks. Their order is brought to their table.
Entrees can be pricey — $15 for salmon and $14 for a grilled 6-ounce steak. However the salads and sandwiches are $7.50 to $10, similar to most fast casual restaurants.
“We deliver a good quality product, and you really can’t get salmon for any less than that,” said Luanne Pederson, director of Blue Lemon’s human resources department. “We are successful because our cooks are trained really well to get those products out quickly.”
Aaron and Lychelle Day opened the original Blue Lemon in Alpine in 2009. Now there are five of locations, including downtown Ogden. Another is scheduled to open in Farmington.
In some cases, fast casual restaurants have spun off from successful sit-down restaurants. The Hug-Hes restaurants, with locations in Syracuse and Ogden, opened an “express” location on Layton’s Main Street called Hugs. It offers some of Hug-Hes favorite menu items, ordered at the counter.
CousCous Grill, with several Salt Lake Valley locations, opened CousCous Express at Farmington’s Station Park last spring. It offers an abbreviated menu with top favorites like Lamb Shwarma or Chicken Artichoke Pesto, served over couscous, quinoa or spirals of zucchini “noodles.”
Locals have their fast casual favorites. Arainna Forth of Bountiful is partial to Mo Bettah Steaks, a Hawaiian barbecue eatery with locations in Bountiful, Logan, Salt Lake, Lehi and West Valley.
“We absolutely love Noodles and Company,” said Natalie Bentley of Farmington. “Fast, good and nutritional meals. It is one place that has something we all like.”
“Zupas, Costa Vida & Rumbi are our go-tos,” said Jennifer Erickson, who recently moved from Kaysville to Stansbury Park. Her family has celiace disease. “I’ve been able to order gluten-free and not get sick. Costa Vida is especially good with gluten-free. I’ve had servers change gloves before touching my food to make sure there’s no cross-contamination. And Rumbi has a yummy gluten-free teriyaki sauce.”
The fast casual trend has spurred traditional fast food chains to step up their game. Some are remodeling their interiors for a classier atmosphere, and adding upscale menu items, An example is McDonald’s “Create A Taste” burger that can be customized with items like guacamole, bacon, or shaved Parmesan, ordered on a touch screen.
In fact, the lines between “fast casual” and fast food are blurred. For instance, Subway has always had assembly-line prep for it’s sandwiches. Yet, its prices are typically less than a fast casual restaurant. Chick-fil-A is known for its food quality, but its speedy service seems more like a fast food eatery. And while you usually consider burgers as fast food, several high-end burger chains such as Habit Burger, Five Guys and Smashburger are in the fast casual segment.
Whether you call them “fast casual” or not, they are super popular right now.
“The fast casual restaurant segment has become more saturated, but there’s always room to grow for those who are willing to innovate and adapt to change,” said James Worthington.