QSRs playing catch up to hot fast casual segment

As the fast casual segment continues to outpace the rest of the restaurant industry, Colorado is a hotbed for these brands. Fort Collins-Loveland, Colo., is the U.S. metro area with the most fast casual chain units per resident, according to the latest restaurant census conducted by The NPD Group.

Of the 15,728 fast casual chain units in the U.S., the Fort Collins-Loveland metro area has 41 but is number one in terms of unit density at 13.14 fast casual chain locations per 100,000 residents, according to NPD's Spring 2013 ReCount restaurant census.

The U.S. average is 5 fast casual chain units per 100,000 residents.

Other metro areas with the most fast casual chain restaurants per resident are the Colorado metro areas of Denver-Aurora-Broomfield (density of 12.76) and Boulder (density 12.53).

The fourth highest fast casual density market is Tallahassee, Fla., with 11.74, followed by Lexington-Fayette, Ky., 11.72, and Gainesville, Fla., 11.69.

The largest city to have the most fast casual chain residents per resident is the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-Virginia-Maryland-West Virginia metro area that ranks seventh in population with 5.8 million residents and has 10.23 fast casual chain units per 100,000 residents.

As the fast casual segment continues to grow its footprint, visits are keeping pace. In the year ending May 2013, visits to fast casual restaurants increased by 9 percent while total industry traffic was flat, according to NPD's CREST. NPD's Spring 2013 ReCount, which is a restaurant census conducted in the spring and fall each year, shows that fast casual chain units increased by 7 percent from last year's spring census.

QSRs working to compete

Greg Starzynski, director-product management, NPD Foodservice, said this trend has forced traditional QSRs to upgrade their menu offerings.

"Many of the fast casual chains have been adding units in an otherwise soft restaurant environment," he said. "Traditional quick-service restaurants have taken notice and are working to compete with the fast casual chains' offerings, especially in terms of the freshness and quality of food. All of these efforts will benefit both the consumer and industry."

Some examples include Wendy's pretzel bacon cheeseburger, McDonald's premium McWraps and Carl's Jr.'s Jim Beam Bourbon Burger. KFC has also created a fast casual spinoff brand, KFC eleven, which opened earlier this month in Louisville, Ky.

In addition to menu upgrades, QSRs are updating their facilities to feature a modernized environment. Dunkin' Donuts, for example, is taking a page from fast casual giant Starbucks, adding flat-panel televisions, comfortable seating, bar top areas for computers and digital menu boards.

Wendy's new restaurant design includes a "chute-style" queue, mainstreamed by Chipotle.

Read more about trends and statistics.

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