Is flex-casual the new fast casual?

A new dining category may be emerging as the restaurant industry tries to keep up with what the busy, budget-aware consumer demands.

Industry analysts predict that "flex-casual," trademarked by Randy Murphy to describe his business model at Mama Fu's, may be the best way to describe the crossover between casual dining and fast casual restaurants.

"We're probably going to see quite a bit more of this hybrid as fast casuals try to pick up speed in the dining segment," said Technomic's Darren Tristano, who had not yet heard the term but said it probably best describes the trend. "(Fast casuals) do a great job at lunch – giving a good atmosphere, high-quality food at a good price point also the speed of service -- but not many have been very successful in the dinner part."

What is flex-casual?

Murphy, who was a Mama Fu's franchisee before becoming the brand's CEO in 2008, defines flex-casual as combining fast casual and casual dining into one concept, where the customer gets fast casual during lunch and full service during dinner – at the same price point.

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"I realized that our revenue split was about 55/45 percent lunch to dinner, and considering our customer base was weighted toward families in the evenings and weekends, I decided to start doing full service at night to increase ticket average and provide a more relaxing and enhanced service experience," he said.

After the move toward flex casual, Murphy's revenue split changed to 45/55 percent lunch to dinner.

"That is a better model than living more heavily on lunches – so we decided to keep that going forward and after acquiring the brand in 2008, we made flex-casual our standard for the brand," Murphy said.

Mama Fu's eventually added delivery, online ordering, loyalty programs, enhanced food and beverage items and is now planning to roll out a call center to improve the guest experience for call-in orders.

Although neither Tristano nor Murphy knew of any other restaurants officially branding themselves as flex-casual, Tristano said Buffalo Wild Wings' service model is comparable. The restaurant doesn't split up full service and fast casual into dayparts like Mama Fu's, but it does feature aspects of both types of service. Customers order at the counter, but a server brings their orders to the table. Each restaurant also has a bar and is known as a gathering place for customers to watch sporting events. It's basically up to the diner to decide their in-restaurant experience.

"I'd say it's about 50-50 full service and fast casual; if you are looking at a successful model that's a great model," Tristano said.

Murphy expects it's only a matter of time before competitors jump on his flex-casual bandwagon.

"In general, customers desire a differing service model depending on day-part -- in-and-out quick during lunch -- and a more relaxed dining experience for dinner," he said. "Flex-casual satisfies that without dramatically increasing operating complexity."

What's your opinion on the flex-casual movement? Let us know below.

Read more about operations management.

Cover photo: Lettuce Wraps at Mama Fu's.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Fahhan Ozcelik
    Sounds like a bright move to satisfy the needs and the lifestyle trends of guests. After all, this is a business of offering the best guest experience by understanding their needs. I think by addressing the different needs for lunch and dinner time, the flex-casual approach achieved building the frequency for each day-part.
  • Chris Hansen
    I'm glad to see a positive attitude toward this model. We are getting ready to open a small pizzeria and this is the model we had settled on when we wrote our business plan. Though it had many of our advisers scratching their heads, we kept coming back to it. It seems like the right model in our area because we have a lot of tourists milling around during the day and business people in the area, all of whom are looking for something quick for lunch. For dinner there are mostly fine dining establishments in our area, which is the experience that many diners want, but there's very little offering that experience in a lower price point. This model also allows us to highlight our slice program for lunch but allows guests to enjoy our single-serving, artisan pies at any time of day.
  • Lambros Alexopoulos
    I am in the process of building a restaurant with the same type of concept although we are going to add pagers to alert the customer in the event an expediter is slammed or a no show.

    The less overhead you have (including labor costs) the better price point you can offer. As long as the service you provide rivals that of any table serve restaurant and the food is as good or better, the result will be return business and I believe higher volume. Face it, who wants to tip 20% when sometimes all you get is less then 100% from a server?

    How many of us have gone out to a table service restaurant and wished we could go get something ourselves. I believe this kind of service, and call it "flex casual", is conducive to that. I believe that is a good thing.
  • barry mills
    good luck with that. The guys who run Moma Fu's are complete neophytes. They have no idea what they doing. Brand confusion anyone? These guys continually fall into the same trap of trying to be all things to all people. hence, their chronic failures. I suspect that all 3 of you commenting as to its merits don't fully understand customer psychology. Please for the love of god if you are going to go out and open a food business that caters to 'human' customers pick one thing and do it well. Dont mess with multiple service models, multiple food types, and all the other junk you see people doing these days. more is never better. stand for something. Be first to mind with something...not everything.
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