The “fast-casual” industry — think of places like Panera — is booming. According to Technavio, the market for fast-casual fare is expected to hit $66.87 billion by 2020, and there are dozens (if not hundreds) of fast-casual concepts that have opened in recent years that are going to be competing for their share of the pie, some as offshoots of major fast food chains and some from big-name fine dining chefs. Though some are bound to fail, these 12 chains are on a path to major success, and you should definitely be on the lookout for them in your neck of the woods.
As opposed to fast-food places like McDonald’s or family restaurants like Applebee’s, fast casual — a concept that really didn’t exist a couple decades ago — fits somewhere in the middle. These tend to be places where the general concept is modeled after fast food (you order at the counter and can either eat in or take it to go), but that’s where the similarities end. Consumers are demanding transparency in ingredient sourcing; high-quality, all-natural ingredients; plenty of opportunities for customization; and a commitment to “real” foods — and the fast-casual industry is delivering.
What’s so great about the fast-casual formula is that it’s so adaptable. Most of them use an assembly-line-style operation that was popularized by Chipotle, and have a business model that’s geared toward scalability and expansion. Whether it’s by selling burgers, salads and grain bowls, ice cream, or Middle Eastern fate, these 12 booming chains represent the future of dining (or at least of weekday lunching), and they’re primed to make a splash this year.