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A little bit healthy, a little bit rock 'n' roll

I remember clearly as a 10 year old “hosting” a birthday party for my baby sister who was turning four. This was the early 80’s and to mark the auspicious occasion, my parents said we could have a treat beyond the tinned peaches, ice-cream and crepe paper linked decorations.

We were allowed to go and get McDonald’s.

We lived 30 minutes drive from the store so we drove all the way there, picked up our Maccas, and drove all the way home to eat it at our dining table. My mum was having none of that eating food in public in “a cattle shed” nonsense so we nuked our burgers in the microwave and were happy as pigs in you know what. I however was yearning to be like the cool families in this TV commercial. The ones who actually ate in the restaurant.

How times have changed.

As a society we eat out a whole lot more but our aspirations are no longer limited to McDonald’s. Recently I had cause to review my family’s personal eating expenditure, just the amount of food we eat out, takeout, eat-in, eat elsewhere or any other variation on that theme. And I say that theme because the landscape of options has and continues, to change significantly.

(Note: since this review took place, new austerity measures have been put in place in the Te Rito household.)

And McDonalds is moving with the times. Whereas once upon a time, upsizing to get a chocolate sundae was a sign of enhancing your meal, McDonald’s has now introduced the “Create your Taste” initiative that allows customers to build their burger just the way they like it. Choose a bun, ingredients and condiments from an interactive kiosk.

Table-service, allowing customers to relax with a drink while their customised burger is prepared, has also been implemented.

Another innovative move by McD’s which I highlighted in a blog last year was the opening of “The Corner”, a hipster café in Melbourne. This eatery is a food laboratory of sorts, pushing the boundaries of the café environment offering non-traditional Maccas fare from a mix of Lebanese lentils to chipotle pulled pork and balsamic strawberry craft soda.

Image: The Daily Telegraph Australia

Image: The Daily Telegraph Australia

Yes, a significant wave of change happening. An emerging category is being carved out within the category traditionally covered by Quick Service Restaurants (QSR), casual dining, takeout and pre-prepared food. Let’s welcome in a new era of fast, casual dining.

It is a concept positioned somewhere between QSR and casual dining, perhaps it’s a blend of the two. Still emerging in New Zealand, it is the fastest growing category in the US and has been dubbed the Chipotle effect.

I love a description I was recently given for this category “A little bit healthy, a little bit Rock ‘n’ Roll”. It really rings true.

So why has this category emerged?

New ways of eating have evolved from our need to eat quickly (often on the run) and our desire for healthier food options. Food quality and preparation are showcased and our desire to eat “better” overrides the need to eat on the go.

Typically these food outlets don’t offer full table service but they do offer higher quality, less processed, fresher food and a more relaxed, comfortable, engaging atmosphere. You might still order at the counter but you’re likely to get real cutlery and plates and can see the action of the food being prepared. You might even get a beer or wine – these offerings are another key differentiator in this category.

Prices are higher than a QSR and customers are more than willing to pay for the quality of the experience.

What are the obstacles to success in NZ?

This has created a perfect storm within the marketplace, with New Zealand food outlets in the centre of the storm where there is still a lot of blur. Witness Maccas innovations to secure their piece of the action and Wendy’s signalling change with a recent application for a liquor license at their Hornby store.

So there’s plenty of grabbing for share of wallet and mind, but there is the offer in our market still lacks clarity. Watch this space.

All the stats indicate that this shift towards quality and quality food, more nutritious and with greater care is a significantly emerging segment but until NZ has more experience with this category, tension between understanding of the offer and the price point will remain.

If you are an operator in the market, that poses a real challenge. How do you move forward when your customers are still trying to figure out where you fit?

Let’s whizz around some players making their mark on the category on either an international or local scale.

The Street Food Collective

This is a genius idea and it makes me happy to know it was home-grown in Auckland. We all have our favourite food trucks and market vendors who garner strong, loyal followings when they deliver on their promise. One of the cool tastes in recent times has been southern American food and BBQ and one of the exceptional operators in Auckland has, for some time, been Miss Moonshine’s.

They developed a great following on Facebook and via WOM and loyal customers followed them wherever they were as a food stall operator. But they recently transformed themselves by opening an incredible restaurant in Ponsonby so you could eat with them consistently and enjoy their hospitality. And, speaking from personal experience, they have the best Bloody Marys in the world.

But this restaurant isn’t actually fast casual dining. Rather that category is on full display through The Street Food Collective. This operation is adjacent to the restaurant and a way they give back to their community and help start-up vendors, giving them a hand up to find their groove within The Street Food Collective space.

Sunny courtyard to eat on the go or simply chill out

Try some of the delicious cakes from The Pie Piper (simply amazing)

It’s a sunny green courtyard with outdoor heaters and permanent stalls, Flight Coffee and a full service bar where the very best mobile food vendors in the city pop up each week. They provide a freshness, a vitality, a social occasion and great food, all of which goes to the heart of fast, casual dining.

Cocktail, beer or coffee – depends on how you feel


Another one of my picks is Grill’d in Australia, a business setting the mark for fast casual dining.

Grill’d is a burger bar where you go with family or friends, enjoy a beer if you like and eat really good food accompanied by great story telling around the sourcing of the product and how it is made. Despite being a chain throughout Oz, they keep close ties to their local communities and you often hear people refer to “their Grill’d”.

Each Grill’d restaurant donates $500 monthly to three local community groups split $300 / $100 / $100, with customers voting for their favourite by placing bottle caps into a Local Matters jar.

Jimmy Grants

This is one of my favourite fast casual dining experiences in Australia and I always have a Nonna Maria Souva when I am in town.

If you are ever in Melbourne check out Jimmy Grants who are also resetting expectations around fast, casual dining with attitude and fabulous food. So the story goes…..

They keep it simple, they are a souvlaki bar. But it’s the way they use wonderful heritage and storytelling that creates connection with them and their food. The ambience in their “bars” is relaxed and cool – even if you are eating at the food court outlet in The Emporium in Melbourne.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

Shake Shack – worldwide domination

It wouldn’t be right to talk fast casual without mentioning Shake Shack, who have been inspiring excitement in this category world-wide. Shake Shack opened with a humble burger stand in Madison Square Park 11 years ago and are now a global chain with 40+ outlets in the US and 29 overseas franchises in cities such as Moscow, Dubai, Istanbul, and London.

Fans line up for the signature ShackBurgers (flavour-packed beef patties served on squishy potato rolls and wrapped in wax paper), hot dogs Chicago-style or with beer-marinated shallots and cheese sauce and frozen custard blended with artisanal local ingredients. Sounds interesting. Each Shack has its own unique creations and house beer is also offered. (ShackMeister ale, made by Brooklyn Brewery). I can only talk to the menu offerings as I haven’t been lucky enough to experience it yet.

Photo credit:

Shake Shack’s approach, sourcing high-quality natural ingredients, cooking food to order, and placing a major emphasis on the happiness of its customers and employees, both reflects, and is driving real change in the marketplace.

In June this year Fast Company followed founder Danny Meyer to get his recipe for success.

“Shake Shack has taken advantage of the burger industry’s traditional emphasis on speed over customer care. You go to a fast-food restaurant; your expectation is generally low. You are almost always dreading what’s going to happen. So, Shake Shack simple say “cool thanks for keeping the bar so low – we are going to go way above that. We’re going to make it so that everybody who walks out is saying, ‘I can’t believe what that guy did at Shake Shack!’”

Creating clarity out of the blur

Assuming your food and people are right, which is merely cost of entry, I’ve distilled the ingredients for success:

1. Be Uncomplicated - in a world of constant distractions, noise and conflict – make it simple

2. Be Distinctive – stand for something. Don’t sit in the middle. Make your offer something that can’t be bought elsewhere or cheaper – have a “handwriting” to your offer.

3. Get Personal – customers are individuals and want offers curated on their terms and tastes. Have room to move in the offer, to make it just right for me.

And don’t forget. Its’ a new category that should be a little bit healthy, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.

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