Based on the information from the 25th annual edition of the Chain Restaurant Industry Review by GE Capital, the dining habits of Americans have changed dramatically over the past 25 years. Currently, consumers tend to eat away from home and are looking for quality, inexpensive food to take the place of the fare offered by traditional fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Burger King. These fast food chains have come under scrutiny in recent years because of the unhealthy food options that they offer on their menus and the shifting taste preferences for more fresh, healthy dishes. The negative publicity is one of the factors that has spurned the advent of fast casual restaurants.
Fast casual restaurants, like Wingstop and Chipotle, are relatively new to the food service industry with rising popularity. Sales in this sector reached over $20 billion in 2010; a 30% increase from 2006.
Interestingly enough, most fast casual restaurants do not offer full table service and customers must order their food at the counter, just like they would at a fast food restaurant. So, what is the driving force behind the popularity of these restaurants?
When it comes to the lunch market share, fast casual restaurants are still behind their fast food competitors. However, there is evidence that this discrepancy isn’t because of preference. A 2010 survey indicated that 30% of respondents didn’t eat at fast casual restaurants mainly because of a lack of availability.
As consumers are becoming more environmentally and socially responsible, local and sustainable food options are in high demand. Fast casual restaurants take advantage of these needs to provide consumer with better food for an affordable price. Other benefits include:

The Bottom Line
There is an increased willingness for consumers to try new types of modern, authentic, and affordable cuisine. Fast casual restaurants fill this niche and because of this, will continue to experience dramatic growth in the upcoming years.