Then what makes fast casual, fast casual?
Fast casual is the classier step sibling to fast food, the one who grew up with its own car and a Netflix it didn’t borrow from its cousin Jason. As Kat has nicely laid out above, fast food sits in the overlapping Venn diagram of convenience, affordability, and universal access. And now fast casual may swim in that very same pool, but it uses a different lane. And over the past year, thanks to my Too Fast Too Casual column reviewing national fast casual chains, I’ve gotten to see a whole swath of places in this space. And I learned a few things about what separates them from their faster cousins.
1. They serve alcohol
Not all of them, of course. But there is a very good chance that if you go to a fast casual restaurant, you will be able to purchase, at the very least, a couple of beers, different types of wine, and in some cases, cocktails. This is purposeful. Fast casual restaurants are aimed more at the work crowd -- if not squarely at tired office dwellers who are willing to shell out $15 for a grain bowl with charred chicken and roasted Brussels sprouts because it’s only a half-block walk away. Fast food, on the other hand, is for everyone -- of all ages.
2. There’s more of an expectation to sit down and enjoy the meal rather than take it to-go
This is an important distinction. Fast casual restaurants want you to stick around as long as possible, whereas fast food restaurants are all about the turnover. The reason is simple: Many fast casual restaurants, like Panera, for example, having witnessed the dominance of coffee house freelance culture explode in the past decade, realized that by making their restaurants comfortable all-day affairs with Wi-Fi and good seating, they could turn a single customer into two to three separate sales. On top of that, many fast casual joints would like people to associate them with their casual sit-down siblings rather than fast food the places they might consider lower on the (fast) food chain. And so they want you to feel like you’re in a restaurant featuring all the trappings of a place you could respectfully take a date, rather than a place where you just grab a bag and keep it moving. Romantic dinner of cheeseburgers, crinkle cut cheese fries, and craft beer under the twinkling patio lights at Shake Shack? Sounds great to us too.
3. Ingredients are often advertised as less processed, more wholesome
As people have become more and more aware of what they put into their bodies, fast casual restaurants have stepped into the spotlight. Fast casual joints want folks to think they exude class, and part of that means healthier ingredients than fast food. Chipotle is easily the strongest example of this, if not the original. The company has spent millions on advertising exactly what goes into its hefty steak burritos and Keto-friendly burrito bowls (grilled beef, hand mashed avocados, etc.) because transparency is viewed as an advantage rather than a hindrance. Want to see that transparency in real life? Look no further than the glass sneeze guard between you and your future burrito bowl. They give you a front-row seat to preparing your food because they want you to see it come together, to watch you customizations come to life, to interact with the worker who’s stupidly skilled at rolling burritos. You’ve probably never witnessed how your Whopper was prepared.
4. There isn’t a mascot
I mean… you’re probably not going to take a date to a place where the creepy food-based felon Hamburgular is handing out Furbys, right?
So, there you have it
Let’s recap with a few examples. Despite its burger-filled menu and the literal word “shack” in its name, by our standards, Shake Shack doesn’t count as fast food thanks to its $7 chicken sandwiches, all-natural Angus beef, and cans of wine. Meanwhile, there's regional chain Culver’s, which interestingly offers table service, but also features a smiling ice cream cone named Scoopie that you can potentially wave to through the drive-thru window as you pick up your side of fried cheese curds. So, naturally, Culver’s is more fast food.
The rules we set have exceptions, and there’s a constant battle to see which chains check out when it comes to our definition. Some of our favorites straddle the line; there’s the tension between the no-fuss menu of Five Guys (fast casual) paired with its quality ingredients and lack of drive-thrus. Panda Express makes us scratch our chins when we consider the amount of previously frozen orange chicken that gets eaten annually, though we concede it’s fast casual when considering the other, fresher ingredients, the higher price point, and like Five Guys, the absence of drive-thrus.
But we can all agree that if you’re playing in a ball pit with oily plastic spheres, you’re a) probably too old for that, and b) definitely not at a fast casual restaurant.
MORE: Check out the nominees for Thrillist first-ever fast food awards, The Fasties.