Fast food was the fastest-growing format in all of consumer foodservice in 2011, with sales up more than 6%. What’s more, the category performed relatively well in every region, demonstrating remarkable resilience in the face of an uncertain global demand environment. In nearly every case, the key driver has been versatility, as opposed to rock-bottom prices—rather than simply providing grab-and-go convenience at affordable price points, the most successful fast food operators have been those able to steadily expand the range of occasions they serve, with value-conscious consumers in every market increasingly looking to any outlet able to provide the range of experiences they seek, regardless of format.
Indeed, while quick-service vs. full-service remains a useful metric, the more important distinction for fast food players (indeed, for virtually every player) has become “formal vs. informal.” Continued investments in in-store experience, coupled with menu expansions targeting new dayparts such as breakfast, snack/tea time, and late night have placed fast food outlets squarely “in the conversation” for a whole new range of eating-out occasions, particularly the type of relaxed, informal, sit-down occasions once considered the sole province of full-service restaurants, bars, and cafes. Where the default location for a quick meal or meeting with friends was once a pub, a bistro, a tea house, or any number of other traditional social spaces, a growing number of these occasions now take place at a fast food restaurant or a branded coffee shop, among others, representing a vast new potential traffic stream for operators in these categories.
So does this mean the days of traditional full-service restaurants, cafes, and bars are numbered? Of course not—yet it does point to an ongoing theme of convergence, with nearly every successful operator looking to expand the range of occasions they serve. Going forward, operators in every category will get faster, expanding the range of occasions they serve, while doubling down on providing a differentiated experience all across the pricing spectrum. While consumer demand has never been a simple matter of one category vs. another—no one says, “Let’s head out to a full-service restaurant tonight!”—heightened competition for traffic promises to blur the lines still further.