The Washington Post ’s Roberto A. Ferdman writes about the success of “fast casual food,” a type of counter-service restaurant that “has grown by 550 percent since 1999, more than ten times the growth seen in the fast food industry over the same period.” The best-known example of the genre is the burrito chain Chipotle, with Panera and Shake Shack also thriving.
What does “fast casual” mean? “It’s surprisingly hard to define what it is exactly,” Ferdman writes. One industry analyst reels off 10 criteria, most of them vague (“food that is wholesome”) or not exclusive to Chipotle and company (you can get “flexible offerings” at Burger King if you insist on it). He does not mention the key characteristic of fast casual restaurants: They don’t have poor people in them.
Ferdman does write that fast casual places are more expensive (“$9 to $13 dollars per receipt, compared to an average ticket closer to $5 for fast food restaurants”), but Chipotle fans gingerly avoid the effects on the chain’s clientele. It’s supposed to be the fresh ingredients that keep people coming back, not the tasteful clothes of the customers.
I go to Chipotle a lot, as well as to Boston-area fast casual chains like Boloco and B. good. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King are off-limits to me, as is New England’s beloved Dunkin’ Donuts. One reason is that the fast casual chains do tend to have healthier options (such as vegetable alternatives to French fries), but equally important is that they so much more pleasant to spend time in.
I stay away, but I feel a twinge of guilt. The city is segregated and segmented enough without the fast-food industry splitting into coach and business classes. Am I being a bad urbanist by essentially paying a cover charge to eat lunch among the better sort of people?
OK, I know the food at Chipotle is better. The chicken burrito doesn’t announce itself for hours after you eat it, unlike a Filet-O-Fish (my choice when I’m at a Vermont bus station or when it’s 3 a.m. in New York City and it’s McDonald’s or nothing). But the atmosphere is a big plus for fast casual restaurants.
The same principle applies when I take a Bolt Bus to New York. It’s cheap, but it’s not the cheapest option. The crying babies and obnoxious college kids are over on the Chinatown buses with the lowest fares.
Clothing stores also seem to be splitting into cheap and just-above-cheap markets, but since nothing in H&M fits me, I don’t have personal experience in this area.
According to the Washington Post story, the cheapest fast-food chains are trying to get back customers from Chipotle et al. (“McDonald’s recently introduced a new build-your-own-burger experience; Wendy’s has been remodeling its restaurants in an effort to make them more comfortable.”) They won’t succeed. It’s impossible for McDonald’s to make any headway among “at least I don’t have to eat at a McDonald’s” consumers. When the market gives us more choices, the outcome isn’t always going to be fair.