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Fast casual restaurants have grown in popularity over the past decade, especially as consumers started to value convenience along with healthier, more high-quality food.
What is a fast casual restaurant?
A fast casual restaurant is essentially a fast food spot featuring offerings that are either more health-conscious or more customizable. With the term first emerging in the mid ‘90s, fast casual restaurants provide many customizable menu options, in addition to offering on-premise and off-premise dining.
Fast casual restaurants also prioritize convenience and value for quality, making them a faster and more affordable alternative to full-service restaurants.
Basically, fast casual is the halfway point between fast food and full service casual restaurants.
What’s the difference between fast casual and fast food?
The difference between fast casual and fast food comes down to two factors: the customer experience, and the cost and quality of the food.
One of the hallmarks of a fast casual restaurant is the level of customization available to a customer (think Chipotle). They also provide inviting on-premise dining. Fast food is focused on convenience, and often has limited seating — the goal is to get customers in, fed, and out. Fast casual restaurants tend to offer fresh, made-to-order food, which often results in higher food costs and menu prices.
Fast casual dining originated in the late '90s and has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. Learn all about this restaurant segment, the fast casual market, and what it takes to run one.
Top 25 Fast Casual Restaurants in 2021
These are 25 of our favorite fast casual restaurant chains around the country. Pay them a visit on your next lunch break.
Sweetgreen specializes in salads and grain bowls using a rotating roster of seasonal ingredients that are delivered daily. They’re extremely popular in offices in major cities, and have created an outpost program where they deliver their salads directly to office common spaces.
Chipotle is a Mexican-inspired fast casual restaurant serving highly-customizable burritos, tacos and burrito bowls using natural and non-GMO ingredients. Some locations are also trying out serving alcoholic beverages.
Five Guys uses fresh, never frozen beef for their burgers, to which customers can add unlimited toppings for free. Five Guys also serves freshly-cut french fries and has free peanuts in every location. Their milkshakes are also worth a try.
Qdoba is known for making many menu items (such as their guacamole) fresh daily, and allows customers to build their own bowls, tacos, and more.
BurgerFi’s appeal is in its use of quality proteins for their chef-crafted burgers, such as Angus and Wagyu beef and cage-free chicken.
With a history spanning 40 years, Jason’s Deli is known for their massive salad bar and just about every type of sandwich you can think of.
With its roots as a New York City food stand, The Halal Guys serves Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods like falafel, gyros, and rice bowls, all of which are halal, that can be customized with any protein (including vegetarian options like falafel).
A fast-casual restaurant serving made-to-order salads, smoothies, and grain bowls using fresh ingredients.
With over 350 locations worldwide, Schlotzsky’s is known for sandwiches using bread that’s baked daily and toasted to order.
Honeygrow places an emphasis on local ingredients and wholesome, nutritious food. At Honeygrow, customers order on kiosks and choose from a menu of stir-fries, salads, and fruit desserts.
A Mediterranean-inspired restaurant serving soups, pita sandwiches, kebabs, salads, and more.
Touting all made-from-scratch ingredients, many of their bowls, wraps, and salads are vegan, vegetarian-friendly, and gluten-free.
Panera serves breakfast and lunch items such as bagels, soups, and sandwiches in a relaxing, café-like atmosphere.
Panda Express serves American Chinese food with great combos including family meal-sized takeout packages.
Smashburger is known for their signature, customizable smashed burgers made to order on a griddle.
A café and in-house bakery serving organic coffee alongside prepared and packaged foods that are made daily. It’s a grab-and-go paradise. They also offer a monthly beverage pass that starts at $19.99 where you can get as many as five beverages a day for that great price.
Based in New York City, Shake Shack is known for serving burgers, hot dogs, and seasonal milkshakes, plus floats and custard, in addition to alcohol in certain locations. They also use kiosks at some locations.
Known for creating subs and salads with quality ingredients, along with milkshakes. Don’t skip their customizable mac and cheese, or their pickles or cookies. They have a great Potbelly Perks program that keeps customers coming back.
Pinky Cole’s vegan burger empire is ever-growing and can satisfy an intense burger craving for anyone - vegan or carnivore - with great ingredients and excellent menu item names.
An all-day restaurant serving paninis, homemade soups, sandwiches, and hand-tossed salads in a friendly atmosphere.
Founded in Atlanta, Moe’s uses Southwestern flavors and fresh ingredients to create made-to-order burritos.
Boston Market is known for homestyle classics such as rotisserie chicken, meatloaf, and ribs. Their mac and cheese is comforting and delicious.
A bakery and café chain selling fresh salads, sandwiches, coffee, and pastries.
This fast casual restaurant’s claim to fame is a variety of freshly-baked bagels and handmade sandwiches.
A casual eatery serving wings that can be customized with close to a dozen choices of dry rubs and sauces.
Why open a fast casual restaurant?
Fast casual restaurants can be a great place to start for new restaurant operators. Whether it’s a franchise or a smaller chain, standard operating procedures can help you get off the ground. And as a consumer, it’s hard to beat the convenience and quality of fast casual restaurants.