Dispatches from the Potomac#12 | The Breakthrough of Fast-Casual

This time, I would like to introduce some of the big structural changes that are occurring in the restaurant industry in the US

This article was originally written in April for publication in the May 2015 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Takashi Imamura

Focus on Ingredients and Service

Fast-casual. This is the segment of the restaurant industry in the US that is enjoying a boom. The sales in 2014 increased over the previous year by 11%, greatly outpacing the 6% increase in the fast food segment. The hamburger chain Shake Shack, which recently announced listing on the stock exchange and entry into the Japanese market, is a fast-casual restaurant.

The fast-casual segment is positioned between fast food and casual dining, which includes the higher grade family restaurants, with typical meal costs in the USD 9 to 13 range. There are three reasons that fast-casual is doing so well. One is a commitment to better quality ingredients and preparation. The style is to obtain fresh ingredients locally and prepare the dishes at each location for local consumption, to avoid using frozen ingredients. Safe food products are used, including organic vegetables and meats that are produced without antibiotics. The taste of the dishes is important. It is the polar opposite of fast food, which is processed in factories from low-cost ingredients; and, it is being welcomed by consumers.

The high-profile company in this segment is Chipotle Mexican Grill (hereafter “Chipotle”). A pioneer in the fast-casual segment, Chipotle emphasizes their commitment to a rigorous food procurement policy with the motto “Food with Integrity” displayed over the counter, even before the menu. They use only top-quality vegetables and meats, produced naturally by directly-operated, exclusive local farms. In addition, Chipotle currently operates nearly 1,800 restaurants, and continues to open new locations at a pace of about 200 per year.

A second reason is a focus on service and concept, such as highly-customizable menus, and sophisticated restaurant interior décor to create a relaxing atmosphere. At Chipotle, the build-your-own burrito is popular, with customers able to choose from a selection of ingredients displayed at the counter. Panera Bread is probably the next most-recognized fast-casual restaurant after Chipotle. Their concept is to offer delicious sandwiches, soups and coffee in a clean, bright café atmosphere, which is especially popular among women.

The third reason is that the strong companies in the fast-casual segment are earning high levels of customer satisfaction by winning the non-price competition. For this reason, higher prices at the fast-casual restaurants are accepted by customers. This is unthinkable in the fast food segment, which has long pursued price competition strategies, and offers a clear advantage in ensuring some room for business development. In fact, the average per customer spending at Chipotle is double that at McDonald’s. Even with a large recent price increase at Chipotle, the existing-store base sales in 2014 were up by 17% at Chipotle, while decreasing by 2% at McDonald’s.

Changing tastes of US consumers

However, one cannot overlook the influence of changing consumer tastes on this surge in fast-casual popularity. Fast-casual has been a recognized segment of the restaurant industry in the US since the 1990s, and still operates under the same concept of providing delicious dishes using fresh, safe ingredients. The difference is actually the shift in consumer tastes, with more and more people preferring fast-casual to fast food. Both Chipotle and Panera Bread have bet on this shift. By continuing in the fast-casual segment they have achieved high growth. In contrast, from the early 2000s, McDonald’s was a major investor of Chipotle, in the expectation of a bright future for fast-casual. In 2006, however, McDonald’s opted to fully divest from Chipotle in order to focus on their core business. Since that time, the publically-traded Chipotle has been riding a wave of high growth. It seems that progressive changes in consumer preferences in the US since the late 2000s have created this large wave.

Moreover, this change will certainly continue in the future. The Millennial generation, those born between 1980 and 2000, has a growing presence in US society; and they show a marked tendency to prefer fast-casual, and avoid fast food. Undoubtedly, fast-casual will continue to grow, and there will be more intense activity from other categories, like fast food, aiming to convert to or merge with fast-casual. I believe that this kind of large change will provide new investment opportunities for Japanese companies, including the Marubeni Group, who have not ventured much into the US restaurant industry and related businesses. I greatly hope to see an enterprise enter the uncharted and promising business of fast-casual featuring Japanese cuisine.