Is Asian cuisine the new darling of fast casual?

Dec. 4, 2013

When it comes to fast casual restaurants, it seems there's always a trendy concept grabbing customers' attention. A few years ago it was the "better burgers," then Mexican restaurants got hot, followed by top-your-own pizza chains. These days, Asian concepts seem to be in the spotlight and are growing rapidly.

Technomic found that the 11 fast casual Asian/noodle concepts it profiled in 2012 saw $2.7 billion in sales from 2,273 units. Over the last two years, that represents a 23-percent sales growth and a 14 percent growth in units.

"Like with most fast casual chains, patrons are drawn to Asian fast casual restaurants for their customizable meals and speed of service," said Bri Quinn, product manager, Technomic. "Diners are particularly drawn to Asian FCRs for allowing them to be more adventurous in their meal choices."

Previously, patrons who ordered Asian takeout or while dining in may have skimmed over exotic choices in favor of something more familiar, because they couldn't see what they were ordering.

"But the assembly-line ordering system and open kitchen and prep area at Asian FCRs allows guests to see their meal choices, so patrons are moving down the line going, 'That looks/smells good, I'll take that!' without even realizing they just ordered curry or a Thai basil stir-fry for the first time," Quinn said. "It's a fun process that exposes patrons to a wider range of Asian cuisine and keeps them coming back to try new things."

Randy Murphy, CEO of Mama Fu's, agreed that consumers seem more comfortable ordering Asian food in a fast casual setting, and his business is thriving because of it. Over the last two years, sales have increased by 4-to-6 percent at the Austin, Texas-based concept. Murphy believes Asian concepts are gaining popularity for the following four reasons:

1. Unique flavor profile: There are a variety of tastes from one Asian cuisine to another, i.e. Thai to Korean, and much more range than burgers, deli, chicken or Mexican fast casual concepts.

2. Inherently healthy options: The menu is mostly proteins and veggies, no bread or dairy, and it's very easy to prepare low fat, gluten-free and heart-healthy dishes.

3. Customization: It allows people to customize their order by adding and subtracting ingredients.

4. Mobility: Asian food in general travels well, so it is very suitable for takeout, delivery and catering.

Mama Fu's, which opened in 2003, now has 17 locations and is opening three more in the next few months. That's nearly twice as many as it had two years ago, and Murphy expects to open 12 to 16 more in 2014. He believes the growing popularity of Asian cuisine will only help his concept, even though it also means more competition from new concepts.

One on those newer chains is Glaze Teriyaki Grill. Founded in 2010, in New York City, it now has four units, including one in San Francisco, and is looking to expand into other cities.

"There are a lot of cities in this country that do not have as much access to Asian food as New York and San Francisco, so we are excited to explore other cities as well," said Founder Paul Krug, who partnered with Chef Dennis Lake to ensure his menu featured high-quality ingredients and a homemade signature sauce. The duo is dedicated to using fresh, locally sourced, all-natural and organic ingredients at under $10.

"I think Asian food has always been popular, and think its popularity is rising as more and better options become available to people. People are really starting to care more about what they eat and want more all natural, fresh and healthier dining options in all food categories. We have certainly seen this at Glaze," Krug said.

Murphy expects the Asian segment in general to evolve as it grows and that new concepts will take market share from traditional mom-and-pop Asian locations as well as bigger brands.

"Of course you can't just open up a new Asian brand and have it click together all at once," Murphy said. "The cooking techniques and systems are different and in some ways more complicated, so there is a learning curve for new brands."

Read more about growth.

Cover photo: Provided by Glaze Teriyaki Grill

Topics: Asian, Health & Nutrition, Trends / Statistics

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