Fast food and casual fast food restaurants are more and more alike

  • Quick, relaxed channels add drive-thru and reduce wait times.
  • Fast food gets more expensive with slower service.
  • The distinctions between the two types of restaurants disappear.

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Quick service chains have boomed throughout the industry over the past year and a half, and it has changed the way they operate. Fast food continues to slow down, while fast and casual food chains have embraced drive-thru and stepped up service.

Fast food is quite clearly defined and recognizable by the average customer. Chains like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King sell food that can be quickly prepared and sold, often burgers and fries. The definition of fast-casual is more vague, closer to a marketing term. According to Darren Tristano, executive vice president of research firm Technomic, the difference comes down to higher costs at fast-casual restaurants, as well as upscale decor aimed at adults rather than children.

These distinctions become less clear from year to year, and they may no longer matter. When COVID-19 closed dining rooms in the spring of 2020, delivery and take-out became the primary ways people bought food, and chains rushed to make this faster and more viable. Large fast food chains were already well equipped to survive a decline in indoor dining, with drive-thru and systems established for efficient food collection.

Chains that were traditionally seen as fast-casual took inspiration from fast food and began adding drive-thru and other means for customers to get in and out quickly. Chipotle, which had built its business model on custom burritos and burrito bowls made behind an assembly line right in front of customers, accelerated the expansion of Chipotlanes, the brand’s drive-thru. In 2019, before COVID-19 changed the landscape of fast service, Chipotle only had 10 Chipotlanes. As of September 30, there were 284 in the United States, with 36 of the 41 Chipotles open in 2021, including drive-thru.

Chipotle executives said that Chipotlanes have higher margins because they generally have higher sales and work more efficiently than the traditional format, and so other fast, casual chains are following Chipotle’s lead. Sweetgreen, Qdoba, and Panera have all published their own plans for small restaurants focused on drive-thru take-out.

While fast food gets faster and adds drive-thru, fast food gets slower and more expensive. The average wait time at fast food restaurants while driving has increased by almost 30 seconds since 2020 to just over six minutes this year, while Chipotle has reduced the average time behind the wheel to 10 minutes. Wait times have steadily increased in recent years, from 234 seconds in 2018 to 327 seconds in 2019 and 356.8 seconds in 2020, resulting in relatively long wait times this year. .

Eating a quick meal at McDonald’s, Burger King, or another fast food chain is also not as cheap as it used to be. Prices at fast food outlets rose 7.1% from this October compared to last year, according to new data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In July, Insider reported that some chains had increased their prices by up to 10%. The biggest price increases were 10% at Taco Bell, 8% at McDonald’s and 8% at Dunkin ‘, followed by Chipotle and The Cheesecake Factory, according to Gordon Haskett’s analysis.

The experiences of customers in different types of chains are increasingly the same. Digital sales accounted for nearly half of Chipotle’s orders in the last quarter and over 20% of McDonald’s sales. For the average person who orders through an app and collects food from an indoor counter, it doesn’t matter if a restaurant qualifies as fast casual, fast food, or whatever.

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