Fast casuals, not fine-dining brands, leading restaurant segment in design innovation

Sept. 7, 2016 | by Steve Starr

Tracking design innovation and trends tells a story about the hospitality industry and can help paint a picture of the future. Restaurants are typically classified into QSR, fast casual, casual, polished casual and fine dining. Historically, fine dining was chef-driven and polished casual aimed to follow suit, while the other three categories often did not make this a priority. In the past few years, however, we’ve seen a shift begin to take place. Rather than going into fine dining, chefs are now looking at translating their ideas to a limited-menu, fast casual concept. So how does this shift affect things from a design standpoint?

A Change in design trends

In the past, design trends originated in fine dining and polished casual restaurantsand then trickled down to the other segments. By the time these trends got to QSR, they didn’t actually impact the design because those spaces operated so differently. QSR was another world entirely. However, fast casual has become a game changer as it has grown in prevalence and the segment now sets the standard for design with the trends moving up the chain to the others.

This is because fast casual is now starting to capture more of the social diners, who are choosing fast casual restaurants for more of their dining out social occasions. With this shift, it is natural for fast casual restaurants to increase their attention on the dining experience itself, which has led fast casual to the center of design innovation.

So, how are these impacting quick service? For starters, we are seeing fast food restaurants feature reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, chalkboards and subway tile. If you look at the diffusion of innovations, according to Everett Rogers, innovation is broken into five categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. In this case, fast casual has been ahead in the realm of innovators and early adopters. And as these trends move toward the early majority, QSR restaurants are beginning to pick them up more.

So what’s changed? In the past, QSR had no direct competition and therefore, no real focus on design innovation. However, this segment can no longer get away with being far from the design trends. With the changes taking place in fast casual, we’re seeing significant increases in the amount of attention and money that quick service restaurants are spending on design and facilities. These establishments have so much money and real estate that they’re now actually beginning to push design trends back toward fast casual. This would have been unheard of a decade ago.

So, fast casual restaurants now have a choice. They can up their game on the social experience and pull customers from casual, polished casual and fine dining, or they can focus more on convenience with drive-thrus and to-go options, and draw customers away from QSR. Meanwhile, QSR is turning its attention to both catering options and social occasions, all while moving toward improving their quality. Taking cues from fast casual, QSR is enhancing their dining experiences and using the strength of their scale to try to do it better.

In the end, I believe we’ll see blurring lines between the QSR and fast casual segments – and these areas will be driving design innovation. For many restaurants and consumers, the clear segment distinction is going away. The focus will shift from the fast casual concepts to those anomalies that stand out as neither entirely QSR or fast casual. The key to it all is making sure the design is intentional, purposeful, and connecting with the brand’s consumers. If this is done well, then others will quickly follow suit. 


Topics: Restaurant Design / Layout


Steve Starr / With decades of experience in the industry, Steve Starr has become a nationally-recognized leader in restaurant and retail design. While his insight and expertise spans the hospitality industry, his focus is on branding, consumer behavior and the development process. Steve leads a creative, multi-disciplinary team of architects, interior designers, graphics designers and branding professionals at Starr Design in Charlotte, NC – where they concentrate on connecting people with brands through creative environments and responsible processes.
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