Part Two: Full Service Restaurants to Fast Casual

On our second trip around the foodservice scale, we turn our focus to a handful of full service restaurants that either went fast casual years ago or are now hinting at the thought of jumping on the bandwagon. With pressure to revamp images in order to stay relevant to consumers, full service restaurants are catching the widespread “Chipotle Fever” and shaking the industry up.

Since fast casual’s debut in the late 1990’s, The Washington Post stated that the fast casual sector “has grown by 550 percent since 1999.” Last year alone, The Washington Post mentioned that “Americans spent more than $21 billion at fast casual restaurants” which makes the grey area of fast casual even more attractive to the outsiders who now want a piece of the action.

In order for a full service restaurant to go complete fast casual, the company needs to make more than just price point changes. According to Technomic’s “Future of FSR: Family & Casual Dining Consumer Report,” the fast casual sector is perceived to offer better value, food quality, transparency, and convenience. This means that full service restaurants need to focus on modernizing store décor, offering more flexible menu items, restoring the company’s perception of freshness, and simply increasing transparency.

A Few Contenders

For instance, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro opened the company’s first and only fast casual contender, Pei Wei Asian Diner, in 2000. Since then, Pei Wei Asian Diner has successfully served its fresh ingredient-filled, hand-rolled sushi rolls and customizable entrees to almost 200 of its locations.

In the pizza fanatic category, RAVE Restaurant Group decided to dip into both the casual dining and fast casual sectors with the company’s Pizza Inn and Pie Five concepts, respectively. After facing tough times in Pizza Inn’s history, RAVE added its now over 30-unit Pie Five fast casual concept that specializes in handcrafted pizzas ready in five minutes.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers chose to simplify its offerings into one concept called Red Robin Burger Works. While it has a quick service atmosphere, the fresh, fire-grilled burgers consumers have grown to love are made from scratch once the meal is ordered.

On over 10 university campuses, consumers will find Denny’s new fast casual concept The Den, which combines new innovative ingredients with existing signature dishes in a convenient and relaxed atmosphere. At The Den, a consumer can order a Denny’s favorite to-go or pull up a chair and try something new.

An Inside Job

For years, Romano’s Macaroni Grill has been looking for answers as to how the company would increase restaurant traffic during lunch hours. The company unveiled a concept-within-a-concept, fast casual lunch format known as Romano’s Kitchen Counter. The new concept was introduced into 131 of its restaurants last fall and has seen significant improvements; enough improvement to extend the hours of its Kitchen Counter offerings into dinner time.

Making a Comeback

Bennigan’s is not only making a comeback into the casual dining sector of the restaurant industry, but the company is actually taking on the fast casual market, too. In February 2015, Bennigan’s CEO Paul Mangiamele purchased the company and announced that the company will roll out Bennigan’s on the Fly in the near future. The new concept will offer a limited Bennigan’s menu and have a smaller footprint that will likely place the concept in hospitals, airports, universities, and cruise ships.

Top Secret

In order to extend the Cracker Barrel brand, the company confirmed last month only one thing – it will debut a fast casual version of itself next summer. Specific details about the menu, name, or even a location have not been released. It can be expected that in due time the company will release small increments of information to keep consumers and competitors wanting to know more.


As more full service restaurants catch the “Chipotle Fever,” the fast casual sector will continue to dominate consumers’ preferences, pocketbooks, and taste buds. In the near future, it will be interesting to see, taste, and experience the new fast casual versions of our favorite full service restaurants.