Flex-casual format gains popularity


Flexible service formats, which have been around for years, are drawing new attention, as restaurant operators seek to offer their guests more convenience.

While fast casual, with its counter-ordering model, has gotten most of the attention in the past decade, such concepts as Russo’s New York Pizzeria, Mama Fu’s Asian and Wolfgang Puck Bistro have found that a “flex-casual” model works well for their customers.

The flex-casual model offers counter service by day and full service by night. Newer concepts, such as Flat Out Crazy Restaurant Group’s SC Asian at the Macy’s store in San Francisco, adapts a bit of flex casual as well.

Wolfgang Puck Bistro at Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles debuted a flex-casual format in April 2009.

“This setting provides a fast lunch for the business diner who doesn’t have time to wait, and at the same time allows for a more formal, destination location for diners who want to come for a nice dinner or special occasion,” said Alyssa Gioscia Roberts, operations coordinator for Wolfgang Puck Worldwide Inc.

Randy Murphy, whose Murphy Restaurant Group of Austin, Texas, acquired the Mama Fu’s concept in March 2008, added that the flex-casual model works for his restaurant. As a franchisee of Mama Fu’s before the acquisition, he said he could never get comfortable with relying mostly on lunch for revenue.

So his Austin Mama Fu’s restaurant began offering counter service during the day and full service at night. The switchover from fast casual between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. is fairly seamless, Murphy said, as long as you have a host or server watching the front to capture the customers as they come in.

The flex-casual format has also shifted more dollars to the dinner daypart, Murphy added.