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15 Ways Fast Casual Will Change in a Post-COVID World

This article was first published by QSR Magazine.

For a lot of fast casuals, 2020 proved to be tale of two halves. The first half, and in particular Q2, was brutally tough on sales. Once COVID arrived, a variety of factors became disadvantages to the category, from a reliance on lunchtime walking traffic in downtown business districts to big dining rooms prioritizing on-site experiences and customizable menus that didn’t translate well to off-premises sales.

The virus could have spelled doom for fast casual. After all, the category was already facing stiff headwinds between the tight labor market and over-saturation. But the sound of the death knell faded as fast casuals quickly tweaked their service and operations. In fact, many were able to return to positive sales comps by the end of 2020, and a recent report from Datassential showed that fast casual accounted for a bigger share of newly opened restaurants—21.5 percent—than any other category between last March and October, even though it only makes up 11.4 percent of the industry overall.

These days, experts are quick to point out the silver linings of the pandemic that fast-casual brands can tap into in a post-pandemic world, from less competition to pent-up consumer demand to trade-down from casual dining to more capital available for growth. But how should brands position themselves to realize their full potential? Here are 15 tips that those experts have for fast-casual operators looking to step on the accelerator.

Lean into the value proposition

Now that most restaurant companies are making their menus accessible through online ordering, it’s evened the playing field across quick and full service. As such, fast casuals will have to design a value proposition around the intersection of price, accessibility, and quality.

Patrick Sugrue is a partner at New-Spring Capital and former CEO of the fast casual Saladworks. He says that despite the thinning of the competitive field, operators can’t let their guard down.

“The reality is we’re going to have higher levels of expectation of the quality of the food and the service methodology,” he says. “So your value proposition to consumers is really key.”

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