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.