Fast-Casual Branding

“Fast food.” Each word on its own is harmless, even positive, but when brought together the phrase conjures a host of controversial and un­pleas­ant images – from the glaring fluorescent lights to greasy meals eaten in the car, meat that might not be meat and milkshakes that definitely aren’t dairy, all the way up to the obesity epidemic. And yet, a new crop of restaurants is emerging that, while providing food quickly, are a far cry from what we think of as fast food.

This distance is evidenced by the embrace of alternative nomenclature within the industry, whether it be “fast-casual,” “QSR” or even “pre­mium fast-casual.” All of them seem to say, “We may serve our food fast, but we are not fast food, and please don’t dare call us that.” The average person outside the food industry has probably never heard the term QSR. But when they walk into this new breed of restaurant, they can tell the difference, and they know that even though they will stand in line, pay at the counter and carry their food on a tray, they can expect something better.

So what defines the next era of fast food? My branding consultancy recently completed a number of projects for the flagship locations of new restaurants setting out to eventually become nationwide chains. As we worked to create that delicate line where culinary quality meets mass appeal, we were inspired by the success of the “New Fast Food,” embodied by national chains like Chipotle and local New York favorite Shake Shack. Here are some best practices that emerged.

1. No More Mystery Meat

Gone are the days of the mysterious “patty.” Rather than hiding behind clever names and shapes, the New Fast Food actually highlights ingredients and practices as part of the brand story. These restaurants are embracing the ideas of transparency and responsibility, recognizing that people care more and more about not just how their food tastes, but where it comes from and how it’s sourced.

Chipotle talks about “Food with Integrity,” promoting its support – whenever possible – of naturally raised animals, family farms, local ingredients and sustainable practices. Starbucks has been a pioneer in social consciousness, working to source coffee ethically while it reduces its own environmental footprint.

“Organic” is no longer just a buzzword in specialty markets or cafes, and restaurant brands are discovering that just because they have multiple locations doesn’t mean they’re off the hook – if anything, they have a greater responsibility because their impact is that much larger.

When a brand is open about what goes on behind the scenes – in a tone that is both honest and humble – it creates a deeper relationship with customers. This kind of transparency enables customers to feel good about what they’re eating, in terms of their health and the planet, not just regarding cost or convenience.

2. Show Some Personality

In the past, it seemed that chain restaurants were all branded to meet the lowest common denominator of design: palatable, inoffensive, all things to all people and therefore nothing to really anyone. But the New Fast Food isn’t afraid to take some risks and understands the value of a core audience of intensely loyal fans. Through both design and copy, restaurants are creating stronger personalities that might turn off some, but build a stronger con-nection with a key group of customers who will then spread the word and propel growth.

When we were establishing a tone of voice for GRK, a new fast-casual restaurant serving authentic Greek food, we weren’t afraid to incorporate some quirky humor into the messaging, knowing it’s more important to win the hearts of some than try to appeal to all. Offbeat humor is a great way to signal that there are people behind the brand, versus a faceless corporation.

Same goes for the use of unexpected design elements – clever icons, cool patterns, unusual colors and more authentic materials such as wood versus plastic. Anything to signify that humans and not algorithms are behind the choices of the brand.

3. Be Immersive 

The most important lesson from the New Fast Food is to recognize that the entire experience creates the brand – from the logo and menu to the layout of the space and people working behind the counter.

Shake Shack in New York has done an incredible job of building a chain that doesn’t feel at all like a typical get in/get out fast-food restaurant. The people working there are friendly. Their spaces are clean and bright. And they aren’t concerned with being THAT fast – guests are given a beeper that buzzes when their food is ready, which, rather than being frustrating, creates a sense of craft and quality.

With our fast-casual client the Hummus & Pita Company, it was incredibly important to the owner that customers felt encouraged to sit down and stay a while. The layout of the restaurant was designed to encourage lingering versus forcing people out, and the unusual but smart choice was made to serve beer. All of this signals that food may be served fast, but it doesn’t need to be eaten that way; it should still be savored.

One other principle I’d like to see in action involves creating a sense of locality. The old fast-food way was to create an entirely uniform experience – whether you’re in New York or Boise or Mumbai, your surroundings look exactly the same, and are meant to provide a sense of grounding and comfort.

But I think it would be interesting to see the New Fast Food embrace a bit of local flavor, incorporating neighborhood cues and adapting to each location in whatever way possible. It’s something that Starbucks does fairly well, but it’s a trend that I’d like to see grow in support of our universal search for authenticity and connection in the food we eat and the places we frequent.

Check out our latest Edition!



Contact Us

Food and Drink Magazine
150 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 900
Chicago, IL 60601


Click here for a full list of contacts.

Latest Edition

Spread The Love

Back To Top