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Fast Casual Restaurants, Millennials and the Evolution of the Fast Food Industry in America
When we think of fast food restaurants, we think of greasy fries, burgers, fried chicken, sugary pastries and calorie-laden soft drinks. This phenomenon has been the case in America for a very long time with fast food franchises such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and White Castle dominating the market. However, over the past 20 years, fast food in America has slowly changed from greasy fries and burgers at McDonald’s to deli sandwiches and milkshakes at Panera Bread or Chipotle. This phenomenon is known as the rise of the ‘fast casual’ restaurants which offer the casual dining experience of healthy, organic meals made with produce that is sourced locally but served at the speed and convenience that one would experience at a fast food restaurant. This trend points to a fast-food industry that is changing and becoming healthier while still maintaining the convenience and the relatively low price point that made fast food restaurants so successful in the first place. This essay will present evidence on how the fast-food in America is changing by becoming healthier, exotic, customizable, ethical and ambient and the role that fast casual restaurants and Millennials are playing in driving this change.
The biggest driver of this shift in the fast food industry is the increased health consciousness of Americans. According to Miller (182), the organic food movement which started in the 1960s has been very successful in educating Americans about the dangers of highly processed food, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the poisonous pesticides that are used in modern agriculture. Instead, the movement implored Americans to eat locally grown food natural and healthy meals. The success of this movement has had a detrimental impact on traditional fast-food restaurants who have often come under attack for selling high-calorie meals which are unhealthy and cause obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Traditional fast food restaurants have also been accused of advertising unhealthy meals to children and using unnatural and highly refined ingredients to make their meals. This increased health consciousness has led to reduced sales in fast food restaurants and constant threats of class action lawsuits from those who think their health problems have been caused by eating fast food (Dixon et al. 104). In order to deal with this phenomenon, fast food restaurants have increased the number of healthy meals on their menus, but their uptake has not been very high.
The rise of fast casual restaurants can be attributed to the fact that they serve healthy food with the same convenience as fast food restaurants. Eagan (178) reports that it is as a result of this health consciousness that the “number of diners visiting fast-casual restaurants grew at ten times the rate of traffic to fast-food restaurants from 1999 through 2014.” Fast-casual restaurants have grown in popularity due to their healthy, fresh made offerings at a low price and high convenience. Food chains such as Panera Bread and Chipotle are fast casual restaurants that have succeeded in providing healthy meals conveniently. These restaurants have self-service kiosks and drive through windows to compete effectively with fast food restaurants by offering healthy meals in a fast and convenient manner (Treflis Team 1). It appears that the future of fast food in America will include more fast-casual restaurants.
The tastes of Americans have also changed, with Millennials being more adventurous with their food tastes. Due to the rise of social media, Americans are now more aware of exotic cuisines such as Mexican, Greek, Jewish, Italian and Chinese and they are more willing to try them (Williams 1). Moreover, eating exotic meals and posting them on social media increases the social capital of Millennial leading to a sharp rise in their demand. Since traditional fast food restaurants still offer traditional meals such as burgers, fries, and chicken they are being edged out by fast-casual restaurants which offer a wide range of exotic meals which customers can customize in a dozen different ways. The ability to customize meals is especially important to Millennials who are now the dominant working generation in America as they see food as an extension of their personality (Eagan 177). These trends point to a future where fast food will consist of exotic and international cuisines which will be highly customizable.
Another shift in food attitude that has been experienced in America is the increased need to eat in an environmentally friendly and socially conscious manner. There is an increase in the desire to eat food that has been sourced locally to support local farmers and local economies and also to eat food that has is grown in an environmentally friendly manner (Miller 182). Often, the food served at traditional fast food restaurants violates these ideals as the breeding of these animals is done in cages, the food is grown using pesticides, and they do not support local farmers. On the other hand, fast casual restaurants often espouse these ideas and more Americans, especially Millennials are choosing fast casual restaurants over traditional fast food restaurants to express their beliefs on ethics of food sourcing. In the future, fast food is likely to be ethically sourced from local farmers using organic and pasture raised ingredients.
The rise of social media and the desire to share one’s activity for social capital has also changed what Millenials require of fast food joints by increasing the patronage of places and food that is picture perfect, and that can be posted on social media sites such as Instagram (Williams 1). Social media requires that restaurants have great ambiance and artistically presented food that is ‘Instagram ready’ even when they are not fine dining restaurants, and they are willing to pay a little more for the experience. Fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle have capitalized on this by having a brick and steel theme with high ambient lighting that has attracted Millennials in droves (Dixon et al. 104). These changes mean that traditional fast food restaurants are being edged out by fast-casual restaurants which provide a great ambiance that can provide social media likes for Millennials. From this trend, it looks like fast food restaurants will have to become posh to compete effectively.
These changes in the fast food industry can be attributed to the coming of age of millennials who are now working and have disposable income to spend eating out, their attitudes about healthy food and the ethics of food sourcing and production have played a key role in making fast food healthier and fueling the rise of fast-casual restaurants. According to Williams (1), Millennials are also more likely to cook their food than to eat out which might lead to a decline in eating out generally as more of them get into the job market and are earning salaries. Social media has also fueled these changes as it has made exotic cuisines more popular and also required that restaurants become more chic and ambient so that they can take photos and post them online in social media sites. The internet has also helped in spread the message of healthy food, environmental consciousness, ethical food sourcing and the dangers of refined food to more people than before. This generation will continue to influence not only the fast food industry but food trends in general.
From the preceding discussions, it is clear that the fast food industry in America is poised for significant changes as a result of increased health consciousness, fast casual restaurants, and the Millennial generation. The future of fast food is likely to include healthier food, exotic food, ethically sourced ingredients, and more choices. Moreover, fast food restaurants are likely to be more chick and ambiently decorated even as they focus on serving food as fast as possible through self-service kiosks, online ordering, and drive-through windows. It appears that fast-casual restaurants, the internet, and Millennials are going to be the drivers of these changes in the fast food industry.
- Dixon, Deirdre P., Jill A. Miscuraca, and Dean A. Koutroumanis. “Looking Strategically to the Future of Restaurants: Casual Dining or Fast Casual?.” Entrepreneurship Education and Pedagogy 1.1 (2018): 102-117.
- Eagan, Sophie “Having it Our Way.” Acting Out Culture: Reading and Writing. Edited by James Miller, 4th ed., Bedford/St. Martins, 2008, pp177-181.
- Miller, James S. Acting Out Culture: Reading and Writing. Bedford/St. Martins, 2008, pp. 182.
- Williams, Geoff. “How Millennials Will Shape Food In 2017.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 3 Jan. 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/geoffwilliams/2016/12/31/how-millennials-will-shape-food-in-2017/#792b972f6a6d.
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