At a shopping center in Glendale, Colorado, Laquardra and Jason Staples are sitting down to lunch. The restaurant is brand new, a sleekly-designed barbecue spot called Carve Barbecue. The interior is styled with exposed wood beams, chrome metal chairs and stainless steel.
“We’re just out running errands so we just stopped in for a nice lunch,” Laquardra Staples said, while she poked a fork at a cup of sweet potatoes.
The meal is quick and no- nonsense, with meat and side dishes arranged on butcher paper, and pushed down an assembly line. Meals run around $10. “I usually do the whole fast casual thing when I’m at work on my lunch break and the food is usually a couple notches up from fast food,” Jason Staples said.
Grabbing a quick meal doesn’t just mean fast food these days. “Fast casual” options borrow ideas from both fast food and upscale sit-down restaurants, catering to customers who want food fast, that's inexpensive and customized.
Their success — having grown more quickly than either fast food chains or full service restaurants in recent years — is part demographics and part economics.
Colorado is arguably a cradle of fast casual, according to NPD Group, a New York-based firm that tracks consumer spending. The state's urban Front Range boasts the highest number of fast-casuals per person in the country. The state is home to both industry pioneers like Noodles & Company, and buzzed-about newcomers like the recently renamed Modern Market and fast-expanding Smashburger.
Diners like the Staples are driving this push to fast-casual dining. They’re in their 30's, and both are professionals. They work busy jobs on different schedules with little time to cook at home. But when they get hungry, they’re not pulling up to drive-through windows at fast food joints. “I graduated from culinary school and I eat out more than I cook at home. It’s kind of a shame,” Jason Staples said.
Despite the higher price of a fast-casual meal, enough people are thinking and eating like the Staples to make it more than a fleeting trend. That’s something Carve’s owners are banking on.
“They’re looking for a full-service quality product in a McDonald’s style efficiency. And that’s really where fast-casual comes from,” said Mitchell Roth, the CEO of Southern Concepts, the restaurant group behind Carve.
Traditional sit-down restaurants struggled after the recession. So did fast food. During the same time, fast-casuals grew. In the three years after 2008, fast-casual visits rose 17 percent, while other sections of the restaurant industry lagged, according to NPD.
“I think with the number of young people moving to Denver, the active lifestyle in Denver, it promotes and encourages restaurateurs to operate a certain way,” Roth said.
Colorado’s Front Range has become a test market for these types of restaurants, Roth said. Because diners in the state first gave approval to some homegrown fast-casual innovators like Qdoba Mexican Grill and Noodles & Company, other restaurateurs see the state as a place to launch a new concept.
“The millennials are the ones who are really pushing this,” said Katie Sutton, a consultant and development chef with Colorado-based consulting group Food and Drink Resources.
“They are eating out 6 or 7 times a week,” Sutton said. “They want groovy, they want spicy, they want bold. That’s what these fast-casuals aren’t afraid of. They’re putting flavor into their food.”
In suburban south Denver, workers at MAD Greens, a fast-casual chain that serves up customized salads, are prepping for the lunch rush.
“We cook almost everything from scratch,” said Dan Long, a MAD Greens co-founder. The Colorado-based chain is beginning to stretch beyond the state’s boundaries with restaurants in Arizona, and planned openings in Texas. But when you’re a restaurant chain that touts its locally-sourced food, expansion is complicated.
“What separates it from the fast food side of the equation is the quality and the freshness of the ingredients,” Long said. When Mad Greens opens a new store, it sends people out to establish relationships with local farmers. Cooking from scratch? That takes time and some skill. All that adds up to a more expensive salad.
“It does get difficult as you get bigger. And I think a lot of fast-casuals are running into that,” Long said.
Some of his peers have run into food safety and sourcing problems as they’ve scaled up. The Chipotle's Mexican Grill chain also started in Colorado, and has recently experienced problems with outbreaks of food-borne illness in multiple states.
Long said even with the high concentrations of chains in big cities and shopping centers, consumers are still willing to pay to go out to eat.
“I don’t think the trend is going away that people are eating out more,” Long said. “I don’t think people are going to suddenly stop eating out and figure out they should be cooking at home or teaching themselves how to cook.”