Three Basic Restaurant Formats

Fast food and fast casual are not quite the same

food being served at Chipotle restaurant
Chipotle is considered a fast casual type of restaurant. Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

All quick service restaurants are not created equally. "Fast casual" is the latest concept in this type of restaurant dining. The term derives from the concept's hybrid nature—it's a blend of fast food and casual dining. Fast food and casual dining are much larger niches, so let's explore each of them and their unique attributes.

Fast Food or Quick Service Restaurants (QSR)

The actual industry term for a fast food establishment is "quick service restaurant" or QSR.

It's best described by concepts such as McDonald's, KFC, and Burger King. Fast food/QSRs have price points of approximately $4 to $7 per meal, with pizza chains typically running just a bit more. They have average food, offer limited menus, and they rarely provide table service.

The fare at a QSR is primarily hand-held sandwiches, wraps, burritos, and a limited selection of salads. McDonalds McCafe has added upscale coffee drinks such as McCafe Mocha, McCafe Latte, and McCafe Mocha Frappe, which are becoming an important and growing component for the chain. The ambiance is essentially functional—lots of plastic seating and table tops, fluorescent lighting, and the chain's branded graphics. This is changing somewhat as McDonald's converts some units over to a "softer" interior design.

But there's a growing trend toward upscale fast food because far too many fast food chains effectively copied each other and ended up creating a bevy of look-alike QSRs.

Upscale fast food is most accurately depicted by the Pret A Manger chain. Although sandwich shops are technically QSRs, the Pret A Manger chain is delivering healthier-for-you food in appropriate portions and it gets consumers out of the store in approximately one minute. 

Casual Dining

Casual dining is best described by concepts such as TGI Fridays, Applebee's, and Chili's.

Casual dining has price points of approximately $15 per meal and it offers menus with a much wider range of choices. If you look at the Applebee's menu, you'll see that items go well beyond the limited QSR hand-held foods. They include more extensive beef, fish and poultry options, as well as an extensive line of salads. Most casual dining restaurants serve alcohol.

Ambiance varies considerably, but the quality of the interior, walls, floors, ceilings, tables, and seating is far above QSR standards. Many casual dining establishments like Applebee's have lots of wood and millwork, custom lighting, and over-sized booths combined with tables and chairs made of similar materials. 

Fast Casual

Fast casual borrows a little from fast food and a little from casual dining. It features a more upscale and diverse menu selection, as can be seen at Chipotle Mexican Grill. At Panera Bread, basic sandwiches are replaced with Signature Hot Panini, like the Cuban Chicken and Tomato, Mozzarella and Fresh Basil. All sandwiches are made with artisan breads, not the loaf white bread or soggy rolls you'll find elsewhere. Salads are hand-tossed and not pre-packaged.

Fast casual typically has no table service; orders are placed and paid for, and customers are then directed to an assembly area where their food is ready and waiting for them to take to a table.

Some chains use a slight variant here—they will take your order, let you proceed to your table, and a food runner will then bring your meal to you. The ambiance is more upscale compared to fast food, with designs ranging from soft colors to fireplaces. The look at most Panera Bread locations goes all the way to the other extreme from the industrial, brick and stainless steel look at Chipotle—dubbed the "Chipotle Experience."