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Technomic: Consumers Are Expanding Their Definition Of Fast Food

CHICAGO -- Consumers' perception of fast food is no longer confined to quick-service, drive-thru restaurants and convenience stores. Instead, a dual concept has emerged, consisting of traditional fast food and of "food fast," served quickly with a greater emphasis on flavor, quality and ambiance, according to Technomic Inc., based here.

A significant percentage of consumers (41 percent) are reporting their idea of places offering "fast food" has expanded recently to include fast-casual restaurants such as Panera and full-service restaurants offering carryout and curbside service, the foodservice industry consulting firm noted in its "Status and Future of Fast Foods: Consumer Trend Report." Based on data from a November 2009 survey of 2,000 consumers, the report integrates industry data from the Top 500 U.S. restaurant chains, select secondary sources and menu analysis from Technomic's MenuMonitor database

"As Americans continue to trade down from full-service concepts, more restaurants are competing for the 'fast food/food fast' customer," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president, Technomic. "Both quick-service and fast-casual restaurants are borrowing elements from the other to drive traffic. This represents a host of challenges to operators rethinking their brands. Understanding consumers' changing perceptions of fast food, as well as competitors' responses, will be central to success."

Technomic's report, which looks at how consumers are seeking faster, more convenient service from all types of foodservice establishments, including convenience stores, food trucks and grocers offering retail meal solutions, found limited-service formats are scaling up, developing bustling social settings within contemporary interior spaces.
Fast-casuals are introducing price-driven value elements to their menus, while full-service restaurants are broadening their formats to include call-ahead and text/online ordering, home delivery and curbside pickup. In big city markets, revitalized food trucks offer upscale and gourmet "street food."

Technomic found nearly half of consumers (49 percent) say they eat at fast-food restaurants at least once a week; about one-fifth said the same for fast-casual (16 percent) and full-service (20 percent) restaurants.

One out of four consumers (24 percent) say they've increased their visits to fast food restaurants in the past year, higher than for any other restaurant segment. Roughly half of consumers (52 percent) say a fast-food meal should be delivered within five minutes; consumers are willing to wait somewhat longer for items they perceive as "food fast."
About a third of consumers say they would like to see dedicated take-out areas at fast-food (32 percent) and fast-casual (33 percent) restaurants. Efficient ordering and carryout options at full-service restaurants have strong appeal. Call-ahead ordering for pickup, separate take-out stations, and curbside service interest 40 percent, 37 percent and 31 percent of consumers, respectively.

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