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Apr 09

Fast casual on menu for Millennials – Toledo Blade

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Food is an easy cultural barometer. Regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status, et al, we all eat, right?

And while food trends can inform anyone with a modicum of curiosity, what we eat is only part of our story.

Fast casual dining, for example, is an increasingly popular restaurant option particularly among Millennials that takes the convenience of fast-food assembly and applies it to the slower-paced kitchen of dine-in restaurants.

A Washington Post story from February, 2015, citing data from market research firm Euromonitor, noted the tremendous growth of fast casual: 550 percent since 1999 — more than 10 times the growth seen in the fast food industry over the same period.

And while the article also pointed out the nebulous definition of what a fast causal restaurant is, Natalie Walston, director of communications at the Ohio Restaurant Association, offered this:

“A fast casual restaurant is a rapidly growing concept, positioned somewhere between fast food restaurants and casual dining restaurants. Technically, being the hybrid of the two concepts, they provide counter service and offer more customized, freshly prepared food than traditional QSRs [quick-service restaurants], in a more upscale environment.”

To put that in layman’s terms, Chipotle Mexican Grill and its cafeteria-style approach to Mexican food is one of the pioneers of fast casual and, despite its recent problems with E. coli, including three reported cases in Ohio, remains its standard-bearer. Other successful chains with Toledo locations include burger joint Five Guys, sandwich and salad shops Panera Bread, and the quick rotisserie deli Boston Market.

Good food made quickly sounds reasonable. The catch — there’s always a catch — is that quality plus convenience equals a higher cost.

Three soft chicken tacos at Chipotle, for example, are $6.60, compared to nearly $3.60 for a trio of soft chicken tacos at Taco Bell.

To most of us who have had tacos from both Mexican food chains, that extra $3 is worth it.

Which is why Ladun Olagbegi, a 26-year-old administrator for a Toledo child-care center who eats out at least once a week, rarely goes the fast-food route anymore, and prefers Chipotle and Panera over traditional sit-down restaurants.

“It’s if you want to eat well but don’t want to sit and wait for the waiter to come — that whole process,” Olagbegi said. “I can pick up good food fast … grab a salad or a burger from somewhere.”

In fact, 20-somethings like Olagbegi are a driving force behind the increasing popularity in fast casual.

“Millennials have grown up where they have choices,” Walston said, and “not only do they have choices, but they know what they want and they want it now.”

It’s also about knowledge, she said. While many of us Gen-Xers would rather not know the mystery ingredients of certain a fast-food chain’s chicken nuggets, millennials “want to know more about the restaurant” they choose, particularly the source of the proteins and vegetables, and the preparations and ingredients used in making the food.

“They want to know what type of food is being served, where the food is coming from,” she said. “Millennials generally have that information and have done their homework before they’ve even gone anywhere.”

But is fast casual really that much healthier?

“It can be,” said Amy Abodeely, a dietician with the Toledo Lucas County Health Department, particularly in fast casual restaurants that are transparent about their foods: “They tell you where they get their ingredients, where there’s a label, and the proteins are fresh and non-GMOs, and they use healthier oils” to cook the food.

Of course, there’s also cooking at home. But that’s not trending, despite the popularity of cable network cooking shows.

That’s a food-related column for another time.

Source: Fast casual on menu for Millennials – Toledo Blade

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