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."
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Cover photo: Lettuce Wraps at Mama Fu's.