Don't call it a QSR
We love labels, so let's institute some new ones that reflect the tech-driven changes that have upended the industry.
If you’ve worked in the business, you know there’s an entire restaurant industry lexicon, usually relegated to stodgy business journalism, industry reports, corporate board rooms, and conferences in windowless Hyatt ballrooms. It’s a way of segmenting different types of restaurants, typically based on style of service, and the labels have been around for a long time. Too long.
But jargon that works for the industry doesn’t always translate to the consumer experience. And given the way technology has completely upended the consumer experience at most restaurants, a lot of the pre-existing labels don’t necessarily apply. For years I’ve even found myself referring to restaurants that don’t neatly fit into one category or another. (Fine dining, casual dining, table service dining, limited service, quick service, convenience, now ghost kitchens, virtual brands, host kitchens — there’s a reason I shared a glossary of current restaurant tech terms a few weeks ago).
For example: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone outside the business refer to a “quick service restaurant,” usually abbreviated “QSR.” The colloquial term for this, “fast food,” earned a negative connotation, evoking images of pink slime or sub-par ingredients with limited service and, by extension, limited satisfaction.
In fact, that particular designation was so bad that certain restaurant brands worked to introduce or define new terms for what they actually are. Chipotle didn’t invent the term “fast casual,” but its in-store experience helped introduce the term. Decades later, Chipotle is still the top example of what a fast casual restaurant actually is. (If you’re curious about the actual origin, per the “fast casual” Wikipedia entry, at least, others are credited with actually coming up with the term, including a journalist and a multi-unit restaurant operator, both in the ‘90s.)
Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer pushed the label “fine casual” to describe a new crop of businesses — the first reference I remember is a piece on 60 Minutes in 2017 to describe that business as it grew, touting a focus on customer service and quality ingredients as a differentiator in a sea of burger chains. (Though let’s be honest, that was always a bit of a stretch.) The term was used here and there at the time to denote restaurants with more elevated service and ingredients, though I personally haven’t heard it used for a while.
Just as fast casual dining took off thanks to the great recession, gaining serious ground in the early 2010s as more brands jumped on the trend of maximizing sales per square footage of restaurant space, so have new categories tied to larger societal, economic, and pandemic-induced safety changes. “Ghost kitchens” and “virtual brands” are 2020s buzzwords, representing the new class of tech-enabled businesses. Is a ghost kitchen a restaurant? Well, no, not in the traditional sense, but they’re still very much a part of the restaurant industry, and they’re shaking it up.
Remember when a bunch of restaurants said they wanted to be tech companies? Yeah, we’re there now.
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