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Fast Casual-
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Quick-casual restaurants offer fullservice-quality food in a quickservice format—and it seems to be a recipe for success. "Quick casual is quite an interesting new market," says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association's Research and Information Services Division. "I view it as a hybrid concept that offers the convenience of a typical quickservice establishment while combining food offerings and ingredients historically associated with more ‘casual' tableservice operations. A main point here is the desire among consumers for a greater variety of menu offerings, provided in a more convenient and timely manner. The quick-casual approach addresses this goal."

NPD's Balzer notes that the quick-casual restaurants are especially popular with baby boomers. "This is an area that the aging baby boomer will go to," says Balzer. "It's a quick, easy, fast meal. It's a cheap meal." Quick-casual restaurants tend to be more expensive than quickservice ones, but aging baby boomers—who no longer have the financial costs of raising a family—view these restaurants as inexpensive, says Balzer. "The word ‘cheap' changes for them. Now that they're not feeding a whole family, they can spend more per person."

Baja Fresh, based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., is one of the leaders in this emerging concept. The Mexican restaurant has 151 units (half company owned and half franchisees) in 14 states. "We offer quickservice food with extremely high quality," says Gene Cameron, vice president of marketing. "Our food costs run a little higher. We make our salsas four times a day. It's display cooking. We are cooking to order. About half of our orders are made special. . . .We're what the public might call a sit-down-quality restaurant. We'll compare our offerings favorably with any of the Mexican fullservice restaurants."

Customers like the quick-casual format because it's convenient and quick while offering high quality, says Cameron. "You control how fast or slow it is. You don't have to wait for a waitperson."

Wingstop also fits into the quick-casual niche, says Swad. The appeal is "excellent food presented to people in a nice environment." Customers order chicken wings and the restaurant's specialty side dishes—including bourbon-baked beans and fresh-cut seasoned fries—in a traditional quickservice counter format.

The secret to the success of a fast-casual restaurant is to develop a narrow focus, says Swad. That's why Wingstop focuses on chicken wings and a few select side dishes. "In order to get the fast part of fast casual, you have to be focused," he says. "In order to have quality food in a fast time, you need to have a limited menu. When you're making four and five dishes, you can make them all excellent. I think [the fast-casual concept] has some room to expand as different operators fill different niches."

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