What you need to know

The COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted US foodservice sales and restaurant traffic; however, limited service restaurants, including fast casuals, were better equipped to respond to changing consumer needs with safe, convenient, and lower-cost meals compared to their full service restaurant counterparts.

While fast casuals fared better than full service operators throughout the pandemic, they still face heavy competition from the convenience and value of QSRs, which have recovered faster. Despite this, 58% of fast casual diners agree fast casuals are a better value than fast food restaurants. Fast casuals can drive value through the use of quality ingredients and have ample opportunity to increase traffic by expanding focus beyond core dayparts to include happy hour, snacking or even remote work occasions. Additionally, revamping the menu to include international and fusion fare can appeal specifically to younger generations who already are core segment diners.

Key issues covered in this Report

  • The impact of COVID-19 on consumer behavior and the fast casual market

  • How fast casuals can stay competitive amid the value and convenience of QSRs

  • The biggest future opportunities for daypart and menu expansion

  • The importance of off-premise investments including contactless pickup, mobile apps, online ordering and ghost kitchens.


This Report will examine consumer attitudes and behaviors toward the fast casual dining segment. This Report builds upon previous Reports with this title from 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010.

For the purposes of this Report, Mintel has used the following restaurant definitions:

  • Quick service restaurants – Used interchangeably with “fast food,” QSRs specialize in inexpensive, convenient meals. There is no waiter service, no alcoholic beverages, and a low price point. Examples include McDonald’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Pizza Hut.

  • Fast casual restaurants – These establishments are characterized by a higher price point than QSRs, though not as high as full-service restaurants. Fast casuals do not offer waiter service and may or may not serve alcohol. Examples include Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bread, Shake Shack and Blaze Pizza.

  • Limited service restaurants – These establishments provide food services where customers usually select and order items and pay before dining. Food/drink may be consumed on the premises, offered as carryout or delivered to the customer’s location. These may also sell alcoholic beverages. LSRs include both QSRs and fast casual restaurants. The “other” category within LSRs, as seen in the Market Size and Forecast section, includes snacks and non-alcoholic beverage bars, cafeterias, grills and grill buffets.

  • Full service restaurants – These establishments have waiter/waitress service, and customers order and are served while seated. These may also sell alcoholic beverages and offer carryout services and include the following restaurant segments: casual dining, family midscale and fine dining. See definitions below:

  • Casual dining restaurants – These establishments represent the largest segment of the FSR market. Casual dining restaurants have higher pricing than family midscales but lower than fine dining, and they offer a full bar. Examples include Chili’s Grill & Bar, Olive Garden and Outback Steakhouse.

  • Family midscale restaurants – These establishments offer the lowest check size of any FSR. A majority of family midscales do not serve alcohol, though some may have a limited alcohol selection (ie beer, wine). Family midscale examples include Denny’s, Cracker Barrel and IHOP. Buffet restaurants are classified as midscale restaurants (eg Golden Corral).

  • Fine dining restaurants – These establishments have the highest price point of all FSRs.

Market context

Economic and other assumptions

Mintel bases its expectations for economic growth on projections provided by the CBO, the FOMC, the Conference Board and other public sources. Consensus estimates forecast US GDP to increase by 6.5% in 2021. Unemployment has been forecast to decline to as low as 4.1% by the end of 2021 with an average of 5.7% for the year.

COVID-19: US context

The first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the US in January 2020. It was declared a global health pandemic and national emergency in early March 2020. Across the US, various stay-at-home orders were put in place in Spring 2020 and nonessential businesses and school districts closed or shifted to remote operations. The remainder of 2020 saw rolling orders, as states and local governments relaxed and reinforced guidelines according to the spread of the virus in each region.

Vaccine distribution began in December 2020, and it is expected take anywhere from July to December 2021 for 70-90% of the population to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. Mintel anticipates business operations in the US will remain in a state of flux through 2021 as the vaccine is widely administered.

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