Intro to Fast Casual Restaurants 2014

By Stephanie Dickison

Fast casual dining is an American phenomenon that is quickly becoming popular here in Canada. In fact, it’s not only the fastest growing segment for restaurants in the US, it’s the only one showing growth. Before long, Canada will be home to tons of fast casual restaurants.

But first you need to know how restaurants are categorized in general.

1. Quick Service Restaurant (QSR)

Quick service is what you and I used to call "fast food." This is where the food is about $10 or under, is often hand-held (pizza, sandwiches, burgers), comes out fast, you pay at the cash (read: no table service) and no alcohol is served.

Fun fact: The world's third largest QSR company was just launched by the merger of two independent brands Tim Hortons and Burger King (McDonald’s and Subway are 1 and 2, respectively).

2. Casual Dining

Casual dining offers moderately priced food, a more extensive menu with fresher and perhaps healthier options than QSR, better ambiance (often booths in addition to chair seating), you have a server (unless it’s buffet) and alcoholic drinks are available. Chains are a big part of this category, including Boston Pizza, Denny’s, Earls, East Side Mario’s, Hard Rock Café, Nando’s, The Old Spaghetti Factory, Red Lobster and Swiss Chalet.

3. Fast Casual

Chipotle, according to author Paul Barron, of the engaging book, The Chipotle Effect, says the company plays a critical role in the evolution of fast casual.

Barron writes, “To date, this niche has helped to redefine what dining out is from the ground up. Perhaps the signal change is the decoupling of quality and speed. Prior to the creation of the fast casual segment, the relationship between food quality and speed of service was inverse: the faster you got your food, the lower the quality had to be.”

That means this category is all about fresh food that comes out fast. Items are handmade or artisan-style, there are healthy options such as freshly made salads and sandwiches. Often, your meal is assembled in part right in front of you. The décor is elevated with elements such as fireplaces and televisions, though you still go up to the cash to order and pay as you would at a QSR. The difference here is sometimes a food runner brings the food to the table.

Examples of Toronto restaurants offering fast casual dining

  • The new Walhburgers offers a fast casual counter located at the back, where you can get the food to take to the upper dining level, or take it to go if you can’t stay. This is in addition to their full-service restaurant in front, which means that no matter how you'd like to dine, they've got you covered.
  • Stoney’s Bread Company  on The Queensway showcases that food quality is premium, served in a casual restaurant setting. Select from chef-driven recipes made with fresh ingredients, items made from scratch (everything from a Blackened Atlantic Salmon Sandwich to pastas and pizzas to homemade chowder is available). When you place your order, “pizzas are dressed and topped, proteins hit the pan and fired,” Alex Rechichi, President and CEO of Crave It Restaurant Group, the team behind Stoney's (they also have The Burger's Priest and Via Cibo). Food comes out in an impressive 7-10 minutes. There is also wine and beer available. Blackboard menu boards, rustic wooden tables, and redwood seating give the space a comfortable feel. And a take-out section allows diners the option of taking it to go.
  • Me-Va-Me is a great success story where the food is insanely fresh and delicious, yet it comes out super fast. With four locations and a fifth being added soon, their rapid growth is a testament to the food's taste and quality as well as the quick, yet attentive and personalize service. Regulars are known by either their name, their order or both - "Hi Susan, Grilled Chicken today?" Consistency is very important to owners Emanuel and Ari, as is bringing a fine dining kind of experience to your fast casual meal.Laffas (a flat bread like a pita) are made from scratch and then cooked in a tandoori-style oven on site. Chewy but not heavy or doughy, it will soon be your favourite way to get a "sandwich." And if that's not enough, it is still hot when it arrives at the table.The menu offers not just affordable and healthy options (grilled chicken - pictured above, alonside lamb burger sticks), beef, lamb, salmon, salads), as well as delicious classics (falafels, chicken schnitzel and chicken shawarma) but huge portions. Don't be surprised if you have to take the rest of your meal to go.You just need to try this East Mediterranean food once to be hooked. A great place to start? Their hummus, topped with chicken or mushrooms (Me Va Me is the largest manufacturer of fresh hummus made without preservatives in Toronto). Me Va Me Kitchen Express might just become your favourite new restaurant.

That’s just how good fast casual can be.

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