What's the Difference Between Fast Food & Fast Casual?

The answer isn't always clear.

Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Since the turn of the century, anthropologists, sociologists, and people weirdly invested in the quick service industry have argued over a central question: What separates a fast food joint from a so-called fast casual spot? The lines between fast food and fast casual are increasingly blurred, especially in the age of advanced ordering technology, delivery services, fancier dine-in booths, and marketing that focuses on fresh ingredients.

With Thrillist’s fast food awards, The Fasties, coming up, we realized we needed to finally put this extremely important, admittedly specific question to bed. We want to be clear in our reporting about what is and isn’t fast food. We also want to highlight the qualities that set fast casual chains and their food apart. For example, should Shake Shack be classified as fast casual because it serves alcohol, or is it in the same category as McDonald’s and Burger King? Oh, and what about Chipotle locations with drive-thrus? Does that disqualify them from being considered among the likes of Noodles & Company, Au Bon Pain, and Five Guys? How does price and quality factor in?

Who better to do that than Kat Thompson and Kevin Alexander, two of the most preeminent, impressive, and modest scholars in the realm of food given to you in a paper bag? Over the past few months, we’ve spent hours reading in libraries, scrolling the information superhighway, and yelling at each other over conference calling software in an attempt to answer all these questions, and we finally believe we’ve come to establish some definitive rules set in stone (EDITOR’S NOTE: the rules are definitely not set in stone). So read on, sweet reader, and purify yourself in the waters of our hard-earned knowledge.

We’re going to clear up what actually constitutes as fast food, while also dishing on the attributes that make for a fast casual restaurant. You’ll be happy to know that, yes, we did settle the debate in the end and even recorded a bonus episode of Thrillist's Best (and the Rest) podcast to go over all of our extremely brilliant conclusions. We're modest, remember?

So... what constitutes fast food?

Fast food is there for your midnight pitstop during a later-than-usual night out, where piping hot McDonald’s French fries or a munchies meal from Jack in the Box are there to rescue you. It’s your road trip co-pilot, with pickup windows serving as your main source of sustenance between Point A and Point B. Fast food is resourceful when money is limited, where you can easily create a satisfying meal from a crumpled $5 bill. The basic dining experience is universal across every chain: your expectations are met with cheap prices, there’s always a ball pit nearby, and plastic toys in every Happy Meal.

1. It has a drive-thru
You pull up, you don’t get out of your car, you snag your food, and you’re out of there. Drive-thrus put much of the “fast” in fast food. McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s -- all these fast food venues have one thing in common, and it’s not the fact that they serve food that has been previously frozen (I mean, Wendy’s uses fresh beef, right?). They all have drive-thrus.

Of course, there are the occasional exceptions to the rule. At Thrillist, we don’t consider Chipotle to be fast food -- what with its insane focus on real ingredients, higher price point, and lack of kid-oriented toys and play places -- but the chain is working on installing drive-thrus at some of its locations. Sonic Drive-In specializes in car hops (on roller skates?!?) rather than drive-thrus, but we’d still consider it in the fast food family, thanks to its frozen tots, dollar hot dogs, and late-night happy hours full of limeades and slushes. Besides, Sonic does have a drive-thru. The drive-thru test alone doesn’t dictate whether something is or isn’t fast food, but the majority of fast food spots will sport a drive-thru while only a select few fast casual spots offer such a convenience.

2. The price point is accessible
Value takes on many forms. You won’t find a value menu at places like Panera or Shake Shack, but you will find deals galore and dollar menus at the home of the Chalupa or under the Golden Arches. That’s not to say the foods at fast casual restaurants don’t have value; it’s just to point out that price -- and at times, food quality -- are different across the two categories. While Taco Bell is touting 21 menu items you can get for just $1, Chipotle is highlighting the remarkably short list of ingredients in its guacamole, which as you know, is $2-$3 extra. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a fast food company that proudly boasts all the ingredients and additives that make up its menu, but offering a whole McChicken for a buck is the draw. 

That’s exactly why it’s easy to stretch a $5 bill at, say, Del Taco, but it’s hard to get a meal at Panda Express without pulling out a second five spot. A chicken sandwich from Popeyes is $3.99 while it’s $7.09 at Shake Shack. Affordability is a key factor when it comes to defining fast food though, as mentioned before, there are often exceptions. A Double Quarter Pounder With Cheese, with its salty newly-fresh beef patties, is going to be priced much more than an order of McNuggets, but the key is to recognize that those cheap eats are options on the menu. At the end of the day, an extra few bucks will definitely get you higher quality elsewhere. 

3. It is open late, sometimes even 24/7
We’ve all been there: shoveling soft tacos into our mouths at 3am from a steamy plastic Taco Bell bag or moping about not being able to get a candy-filled McFlurry because the machine is broken yet again and that’s the only thing that’s going to help you relax after a long overnight shift. That’s something fast food has over fast casual: You can show up at random hours and be on your merry way (at least, when the machine is working!) with fried food in a bag. Most fast food places are open late, and some are even open 24/7, including holidays. You cannot, for the most part, get Panera’s mac & cheese at 2am. Likewise, you can’t turn to Shake Shack for an emergency burger run on Christmas Day.

4. You can get a happy meal -- and maybe enjoy a ball pit
In the year of our lord, 2000, I -- like most 7 year-olds at the time -- was a Furby fanatic. I collected every single Furby from McDonald’s Happy Meal offerings of that year. Where else can you get a swarm of plastic Furbys that will stare into your soul, or a collection of plastic figures from whichever Disney movie is coming out next? Not at Panda Express or Five Guys. Certainly not at Chipotle. 

Beyond the figurines included in Happy Meals that kids shriek over, fast food spots also, at times, are home to a glorious ball pit and play area. Yes, this has nothing to do with the food. Yes, it’s still relevant. Slides and mascots and toys are woven in the very fabric of indoctrinating kids to love fast food from a young age that is unlike any other restaurant’s kid’s meal. It’s something that makes fast food stand out among other chains -- it’s silly and fun and thrives on the joy of kids begging their parents to please get them a Happy Meal and let them play in the ball pit.

Fast food chains are perfectly fine with your inability to take them too seriously.

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.

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn

Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s National Writer-at-Large, Food. His book on the unique mix of people, places, and circumstances that led to the last decade of eating/drinking in America, BURN THE ICE: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End is out now from Penguin Press. He is a 2017 James Beard Foundation Award winner.