A nationwide study sponsored by King-Casey Inc., Pepsi-Cola Fountain Beverage Division and QSR magazine has identified a new restaurant category. "Fast Casual balances the speed of fast food with the superior food quality and environmental ambiance of casual dining, and delivers it at an immediate price point," says Tom Cook, the King-Casey CEO who conceived the study entitled "Here Comes Fast Casual."

The study found fast casual diners spend, on average, $5.45 for breakfast, $7.07 for lunch and $11.66 for dinner. In addition, these consumers expect to be served in 10 minutes and have eaten in a fast casual restaurant roughly seven times in the last three months. The top five fast casual restaurants (by number of times visited) were TGI Friday's Express, Boston Market, Chili's Express, Schlotzky's Deli and Bennigan's.

Listing a ranking of importance of certain factors to the fast casual diner, the study found these diners place a much higher degree of importance on an enhanced dining experience than do diners in a fast food restaurant. Noting that fast casual diners are "clearly willing to pay for what they want," Cook believes, "with 'quality food' and 'healthy menu items' ranking near the top of the importance list for fast casual diners, there are market gains to be won by fast food operators that can take their concept in that direction. However, the road is much clearer for some than others. Subway, which has already converted its core menu to healthy offerings, will have a much easier time gaining the 'permission' of consumers to move in the fast casual direction."

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