Should You Open a Fast Casual?

Even as momentum has slowed in the fast-casual sector, full-service operators and chefs continue to enter the quick-service fray en masse. Some want a crack at becoming the next Shake Shack or Sweetgreen, attracting investors and big potential profits. Others see it as insurance against the next great restaurant culling as the landscape grows more crowded. 

But the fast-casual model isn’t a panacea. It’s facing increased competition from higher-quality convenience-store food offerings and service-oriented supermarkets, as well as decelerating unit development. Some operators even see renewed promise in the casual-dining sector, which has been overlooked in certain markets amid the quick-serve frenzy. 

All the while, heightened consumer expectations surrounding convenience, quality, and service continue to affect the broader industry. Savvy operators with crossover experience between the casual and fast-casual worlds are applying innovative learnings in unexpected ways, raising the bar on everything from efficiency to hospitality.

Should you follow suit and add a fast-casual to your portfolio? These lessons learned from operators with feet planted in both quick and full service might help you answer the question.

Offsetting labor increases

It’s no secret that labor increases are presenting a daunting challenge to full-service operators—particularly for brands predicated on fine dining–quality fare at everyday prices. Counter-service technologies like self-ordering kiosks help brands save on front-of-house labor costs so they can focus on customer service at other touch points, as well as offset rising labor costs with increased revenues. 

For the Denver-based team behind full-service brands Park Burger and Homegrown Tap & Dough, adding fast-casual chicken joint Birdcall to the portfolio enabled them to capitalize on the efficiency side of the value proposition.

“Our full-service brands are about high-quality foods at very low price points—the kinds of places people can dine at two or three times a week,” says Park Burger president Peter Newlin. “Birdcall originated as a one-off chicken sandwich shop, but then we realized, wow, there’s real value here. We really became intrigued by the idea of technology in the fast-casual market and how we can use software to keep driving our prices lower and lower.”

The team built a proprietary customer-facing POS system, resulting in a nearly staffless front of house. Customers place their orders at bright-yellow touchscreens, then track a mounted flatscreen with rolling names and orders that counts down the seconds until their chicken sandwiches are ready to be retrieved from honeycomb-like bins—typically within three to five minutes. Frequent diners are assigned profiles to simplify repeat ordering, and a forthcoming app will link with the kiosk experience. 

“It’s been so great to save order-taking for a simple platform and focus on those service aspects that are more important,” Newlin says, pointing to hospitality-oriented quick serves like Chick-fil-A, which he looked to while building Birdcall. “We want to touch every table—whether that’s grabbing you an extra napkin, refilling your lemonade, or taking your coat if it’s cold.”

Undoubtedly another big draw of this model, though, is the quickened path to stability and ease of training staff compared with full service, which has enabled the company to scale quickly and franchise. Birdcall opened three locations in the past year alone—most recently inside a Whole Foods Market at Denver’s Union Station.

But Newlin’s quick to add that the company isn’t abandoning full service. “It’s not that we want to stop doing full service, but the price point is going to have to go up there,” he says. “We’re still a restaurant with big dreams that wants to make an impact. From an execution point of view, it’s much more challenging to do that with Homegrown or Park Burger, which have a ton of moving parts. They could never be franchised, and never grow faster than one store a year. Birdcall was designed to use technology and automation in as many areas as possible to improve the performance of the team and, more importantly, to set them up for success.” read the full article on

Lauren Vaughan