While few outside the restaurant industry know, or would care much about restaurant service categories, like QSR and fast casual, we who ply our trades in this business define much of what we do through these service levels. So, whether it's that longtime, ultra-tony restaurant in the Big Apple or a new quick-service pizza chain starting to franchise, service category is essential to the conversation.
The problem is that these categories aren't so simple anymore. Brands are now using a variety of names to define their service formats. I've seen "quck casual," "fast fine" "virtual restaurants, "fresh casual" to name a few, and the fact became painfully clear to me as I participated in this year's screening of the 2018 Fast Casual Top 100 Movers & Shakers.
Increasingly, brands that have previously identified as QSR, as well as many traditionally categorized that way in industry conversation, are now referring to themselves as "fast casual" brands. Such was the case for about a dozen entrants in this year's competition. As editor of QSRweb, this got my "wheels turning," so to speak.
"When it's left to journalists, rather than industry itself, to define business categories, well, you can envision the problem. But surely this also presents problems for vendors, restaurant organizations and ultimately customers, who ... have price and décor expectations for [QSR] brands that differ greatly from brands who claim to represent some form of 'casual' service category."
Naturally, the reasons brands shift servicecategories are many, not the least of which is the overall trendiness and popularity of fast casual brands. Likewise, many QSR brands are upgrading their menus and restaurant designs, as well as pricing, pushing them into new service categories, as was the case with Fazoli's a few years back.
After discussing the issue with QSRweb's parent company's editorial director, Fast Casual Editor Cherryh Cansler and Food Truck Operator Editor Elliot Maras (both sites are sister publications of QSRweb), we wondered collectively whether there might be an emerging need for some updated definitions of the general service categories, including some of their baseline characteristics.
The logic behind this idea ...
As I wrote that last paragraph, I could almost hear restaurateurs everywhere moaning in unison and collectively shouting, "Absolutely not!" But hear me out, as to some of the reasons it might be helpful to have some agreed-upon definitions for the larger categories, through a consensus of industry leadership.
Strictly from a media coverage standpoint, it would take some of the possible "subjectivity" out of coverage of those particular brands that claim one category but have long been covered as another. At both QSRweb and FastCasual, editors have innocently labeled a brand as QSR, only to have their media representatives rapidly contact editors with an air of being highly offended, demanding an immediate change to the classification.
In these cases, there is a strong sense that the brand has been demoted or offended by the QSR label, rather than the fast casual category. But as journalists, we strive to be accurate, so if the majority of the public and the business community see quick-service as lower price point brands with less emphasis on dine-in, it would be inaccurate to label such brands as fast casuals when they fail to meet those parameters.
And when it's left to journalists, rather than the industry itself, to define business categories, well, you can envision the problem. But surely this also presents problems for vendors, restaurant organizations and ultimately customers, who typically refer to QSR as "fast food" and have price and décor expectations for those brands that differ greatly from brands who claim to represent some form of "casual" service category.
Vendors, for instance, who sell higher-end products are going to needlessly approach brands that are not appropriate for their services, wasting a lot of ever-more-precious leadership time, money and effort. And since this all ultimately ends with the customer, disappointment and frustration are almost guaranteed results with the very people restaurants serve.
"There's no reasons QSR employees shouldn't be proud of the amazing work they do. For instance, I popped into a national burger chain the other day ... [and] watched while three awesome ladies astutely juggled a dozen drive-thru customers, one loudly irate mom at the end of her proverbial rope and a flood of delivery orders, while also mopping a rain-soaked floor, cooking burgers, dropping fries, bagging, cashing out and just not 'losing it,' as I probably would. They joked. They hustled. They cooked, bagged, changed and miraculously smiled through it all. Now that kind of on-the-job teamwork and performance is ... worth crowing about."
Just imagine, for example, the harried millennial mom with a carful of young Brownie troop members screaming for food NOW, who stops at what she always thought was a fast-food chain only to find that neither the prices nor the atmosphere are suited to a dozen high-strung little ladies in scout uniforms.
The big question: Is it time to define?
So here's my question: Do we need some agreed-upon benchmarks for different restaurant categories, perhaps beginning in the U.S. restaurant industry? Is it even worth discussion on any level and if so, how would that discussion take place and through what venue? Likewise, what would be the ultimate goals and benefits for restaurateurs, the public, and those serving the industry and which categories would be defined?
And while we're on the subject of foodservice categories, what's this inferiority complex that some brands seem to have developed about the quick-service sector? Yes, fast casual is trendy. But QSR is not only needed but dearly loved by many diners, so why not proclaim that fact loudly and proudly, QSR brand leadership?
Granted, QSRs have taken the brunt of the criticism over the years for overall quality and healthfulness of their menus, but even the biggest QSR chains have now poured substantial time, money and effort into significantly boosting menu quality and sourcing. And they're doing it all about twice as fast and in a more customer-convenient manner than any other restaurant category.
So,"Flaunt it, baby!"
After all, with employee recruitment and retention among the industry's top concerns today, wouldn't potential employees be attracted most to the most attractive brands? Conversely, if even QSR brands aren't proud of their products, who would want to work for one?
But there's no reasons QSR employees shouldn't be proud of the amazing work they do. For instance, I popped into a national burger chain the other day, which has not only recently added more healthful, tastier offerings, but worked hard to connect with each store's local community.
I watched while three awesome ladies astutely juggled a dozen drive-thru customers, one loudly irate mom at the end of her proverbial rope and a flood of delivery orders, while also mopping a rain-soaked floor, cooking burgers, dropping fries, bagging, cashing out and just "not losing it," as I probably would.
They joked. They hustled. They cooked, bagged, changed and miraculously smiled through it all. Now that kind of on-the-job teamwork and performance is, in my book, worth crowing about.
Topics: Burger/Steak/BBQ, Business Strategy and Profitability, Chicken, Coffee/Bakery/Donut, Communications, Customer Service / Experience, Fast Casual Executive Summit, Food Safety, Health & Nutrition, Human Resources, Insurance / Risk Management, Interior Décor, Marketing / Branding / Promotion
Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.