How do fast-casual consumers conceptualize healthy and high-quality food?

By Michelle Castillo, Social Media Coordinator

It seems as though consumers in the fast-casual world have expressed a huge importance in healthy eating in the last year. Leading players in this “good-for-you” segment, such as Chipotle and Sweetgreen, have really kept up with the latest trends in nutrition. But lets get specific. What matters most to fast-casual customers? Gluten-free, organic or GMO-free food? And how much do they really care in general? 

According to a recent Zagat survey, consumers don’t actually care as much as one would think. Zagat surveyed more than 6,600 people for the publication’s first report on fast-casual dining. Between Gluten-free, organic and GMO-free food, customers concentrate more on GMO-free food. About 19 percent responded that it’s “very important” for a fast-casual restaurant to have GMO-free ingredients. However, only 5 percent of survey participants feel that gluten-free options should be emphasized, and 81 percent say it’s not significant to them or just have no opinion overall.

But don’t be fooled by these results! Food and ingredient quality is still, without opposition, the most attractive characteristic in a fast-casual restaurant for customers. It’s what keeps them coming back. The second and third most important factors are value and cleanliness.

It gets more interesting, everyone. Lunch is the most favored meal to eat at fast-casuals. Two-thirds either go once or twice a week or a few times a month with 60 percent leaning toward lunch. Only 2 percent regularly visit fast-casuals for breakfast. Breakfast, however, has a huge potential for growth, as it does in the fast-food industry. For example, McDonald’s breakfast makes up a fourth of sales. It's no wonder the company made the move to serve breakfast all day.

How will fast-casuals define themselves moving forward? Well, with the way consumers develop concepts on healthy eating high-quality food will continue to play a major role. Although a small percentage of consumers labeled gluten-free options as important, this lifestyle has already risen. From 2010 to 2012, gluten-free options increased ten times as great on full-service menus. Chains like Pizza Hut and Panera have joined the gluten-free club and have added options in just the last year.

However, the healthy-conscious crowd still seems to be concentrating more on GMOs. Chipotle became the first national chain to go GMO-free. But that still wasn’t enough for customers. On Monday, Aug. 31, a lawsuit was filed against the chain claiming that menu items still weren’t GMO-free, Chipotle's soft drinks and meat products in particular. Read More