Seriously Casual

However you define “casual dining” these days, what it often means is “on trend.” Let’s take a look at some of the strategies and venues that give customers what they want today, from chef-casual to fast-casual to QSR.

Faster, Better

Many foodservice customers are looking for convenience, value, unique menu items and service. But the definition is changing for each. High technology, for example, means “convenience” that is more attuned to order format, speed and accuracy. Online ordering and mobile apps make the difference here. Another watchword: flexibility, both in food (think all-day breakfast) and ambience (like the increase in takeaway along with Pinterest-worthy decor). Value has always been a must for QSR, but now it means “quality of food” as well as price. Simple, healthy, fresh and more veg! The quest for quality sometimes translates into smaller menus, a financial plus for the casual sector.

On a Roll

Sandwiches—especially burgers—continue to add new concepts. Case in point: The Burger’s Priest chain currently expanding across the provinces. Fresh-ground meat is their claim to fame; “Redeeming the burger one at a time” is their tagline. At Hey Meatball (Toronto, Ont.), founding chef Rod Bowers taps into the customization trend with his signature Rodfather sandwich, offering a choice of beef, chicken, pork or vegan meatballs. The demand for both meat and heat continues—BrandSpark’s “Canada’s Best New Menu Items Award Winners” for 2015 include the Mile High Bacon Thickburger from Carl’s Jr. and the Jalapeño Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich from Wendy’s.

Bubble, Burn, Bake

Technomic researchers point out more evolution in the casual sector. First, smoke and fire are both still hot. Beyond meat: veggies and fruits also taste better charred. Take a look at smoked salt and caramelized sugar, too. Second, effervescent beverages—like sparkling teas and adults-only, “hard” soft drinks—are gaining appeal, along with craft coffees. And breads are back in style! Customers love herbed and cheesy rolls, toast with toppings, and pull-apart versions to share. (Bake-from-frozen doughs are a great option here.)

Worldly Mashups

Celebrity chefs and chains both love to combine different ethnic cuisines for tasty surprises—spurred by customer demand. One example: the “international” section of Pizza Pizza’s menu. Small, gourmet thin-crust choices range from a Spanish-inspired version to a Thai pie—with sweet chili sauce, chicken, broccoli and sundried tomatoes. Oz Kafe in Ottawa has won several awards for marrying Asian small plates with Mexican flair. As in “Wonton Nachos” featuring smoked duck and spicy crema. The success of sriracha has prompted everyone in the casual sector to seek other exciting flavours from global cuisine, like India’s ghost pepper. Even breakfast is a place to claim ethnicity. For example, Smitty’s offers a Ukrainian skillet: cheddar-potato pierogies topped with eggs, onions, cheese, sausage and sour cream.

* NPD’s 2020 Vision/Canada