Fast Casual vs. Fast Food: What's the Difference?
Wondering what separates fast casual dining from fast food? Learn about what makes these two styles of dining different in terms of prices, customers, and more.
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Whether you’re thinking about opening a fast food or fast casual franchise, or thinking about starting your own fast food or fast casual business from scratch — or even if you’re on the go trying to figure out what type of restaurant to eat at between appointments, this guide on fast food vs. fast casual has everything you need to know.
The Customer Experience
Let’s break down the customer experience between Fast Casual vs. Fast Food. In general, fast casual restaurants typically offer a wider range of service types, with more customizable menu items, and an atmosphere that encourages guests to sit down and enjoy their meal.
Fast food restaurants, on the other hand, are usually more focused on having customers get in and get out, and often use drive throughs for a large portion of their orders.
Fast casual restaurants, like Chipotle or Pokeworks, offer a variation on the typical quick service customer experience by creating an environment that encourages guests to sit down and enjoy their meal on-site.
Fast casual restaurants can come in a variety of service formats:
Traditional counter service - order off a preset menu from the counter, and pick up your food when it’s ready.
Limited counter service - order off a preset menu from the counter, and have your food run out to you.
Custom counter service - this is your typical “assembly line” type restaurant that makes your order right in front of you and hands it to you at the end of the line when you pay the cashier.
The right service model for your fast casual restaurant will depend on your staffing plans, cuisine type, and restaurant layout. Typically fast casual restaurants that serve food that can be highly customizable - like salads, poke bowls, burritos, or Mediterranean dishes - will opt for the assembly line style service model so that their guests can customize their order exactly to their liking.
The primary difference between fast casual vs. casual dining is that in casual dining your order is typically taken at the table by a server. Fast casual offers the convenience of fast food, while offering some of the elements of casual dining like an inviting atmosphere, alcohol menus, and in some cases, food runners.
Although some Fast Casual restaurants serve alcohol, it's definitely not the norm compared with casual dining.
While fast casual restaurants are more focused on ambiance, menu variations, and some aspects of casual service, fast food is more convenient for on-the-go customers who are on a time crunch. Think fast-moving counter lineups and self-serve kiosks, often with limited seating, as many guests take their food to go.
Oftentimes, fast food restaurants have drive through lanes, which are all about making it as fast and easy to get your food as possible. Additionally, while fast casual restaurants typically have operating hours more oriented around lunch and early dinner, fast food restaurants are often open late or even 24/7.
The Cost and Quality of Food
Fast casual vs. fast food restaurants often have big differences when it comes to the cost and quality of the food offered. The food at fast casual restaurants tends to be in a higher price range than fast food, but still won’t cost as much as a sit down meal ordered from a server at a casual dining restaurant.
Fast casual restaurants tend to offer fresh, made-to-order food and often include healthy menu options. The quality of the food is closer to what you would expect at a sit-down restaurant, but the service is still designed to cater to those who are on the go. Additionally, Fast casual restaurants excel in offering options for customization. For example, imagine a Mediterranean restaurant that sells built to order pitas and bowls with the available ingredients below:
# of Variations
Pita or Bowl
Pita or Bowl
Rice, Salad, Lentils, or Quinoa
Chicken, Beef, Lamb, or Falafel
Dips & Spreads
Hummus, Roasted Eggplant, Tzatziki, Feta, Harrissa
Lettuce, Pickled Onions, Feta, Cabbage, Olives, Tomato & Onion Salad
Tahini, Yogurt Dill, Vinaigrette, Lemon Aioli
This example menu would offer a customer the possibility of over 3,800 unique combinations! If you added “take out” or “dine in” to that as well, which most fast casual restaurants offer, you could have almost 8000 unique items and ways to eat them!
And you can see how this math would apply to other cuisine types as well, like burrito bowls, poke bowls, or salads. What other restaurant type can offer such customization and still serve the guest within just a few minutes from order entry to payment?
Given this focus on fresher, higher quality ingredients with a variety of customization options, fast casual restaurants typically have higher food cost, and thus higher menu prices, than fast food restaurants. A bowl from our example Mediterranean restaurant above, for example, might cost between $10-$14.
Fast food restaurants, on the other hand, are typically focused on offering the fastest preparation time, which can mean lower quality, fewer fresh ingredients, and limited options for customization.
As a result, Fast Food restaurants can offer full meals, with a sandwich, fries, and a drink, for under $10, while our fast casual example above was $10-$14 just for a main dish. These quick service times and lower cost menu items certainly have their appeal — in fact there are almost 50 million Americans who eat fast food every day.
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What Do They Have in Common?
While fast casual vs. fast food restaurants have a lot of differences in service model, food types, and prices, they also have some common elements: faster service than fine dining or casual dining, lower price points, and meaningful takeout volume.
Quick Dining Without Breaking the Bank
Both fast casual and fast food restaurants offer faster and cheaper dining options than fine-dining or even casual table service restaurants.
Fast casual restaurants and fast food restaurants can often leverage similar components of POS technology — including Kitchen Display Systems, Self Ordering Kiosks, Online Ordering, and Third Party Delivery Services.
When it comes to looking for POS technology, fast casual and fast food restaurants have a few common goals: speed of service, ease of order entry, and ease of updating and maintaining menus. Both types of restaurants need a POS that can easily handle a large volume of fast-paced orders over a short period of time, like during the busy lunch rush in a metro area.
Both fast food and fast casual restaurants tend to offer loyalty programs as well. Because of their quick service and lower cost menu items, it’s easy for these restaurants to become a go-to lunch spot or takeout spot for their customers. Loyalty programs help convert those one time visitors into repeat regulars by rewarding them with points for each visit to come back for more in the future.