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As today’s consumers get busier and busier, they have less time to eat out at restaurants, but they still want to get a good meal. Restaurants and diners are both moving away from the idea that great food has to come with a huge price tag or a lot of formality. The restaurant industry’s answer to this craving has become a brand new trend: fine casual dining.

Defining “Fine Casual”

Fine casual restaurants have been popping up around the country for years now, but Danny Meyer just recently defined the term. As Meyer says, this new kind of restaurant marries together “the ethos and taste level of fine dining with the fast food experience.” His two fine casual restaurants, Shake Shack and the new pizza restaurant Martina, are famous examples of this growing trend.

The term “fine casual” has already caused some controversy – but not for the reasons you may expect. Restaurateurs are delighted at this new type of concept, but critics say the phrase is confusing. Industry experts are arguing over semantics, saying that since “casual” refers to the quality of the food (and the availability of alcohol), while “fast” refers to the speed of the diners’ experience, these restaurants should actually be calling themselves “fast fine.”

Customers are Feeling Fine

From a guest perspective, fine casual restaurants offer the fast-casual experience of ordering at a counter and refilling your own drinks, with the high-quality food one might expect from a full-service restaurant. High-quality ingredients make for a higher cost to the diner – but for most guests, this is a major selling point.

Market research firm Mintel reports that 69% of consumers want to see more restaurants with a casual atmosphere but high-quality food.

Operators Have Their Plates Full

For restaurant operators, fine casual dining means a major shift in operations. These establishments require a smaller front of house staff than full-service restaurants, which lets businesses save on labor costs. Some of these restaurants, like Charles Bililies’ Souvla, also depend heavily on takeout and delivery. Now that 5-star table service is not an essential part of a great meal, diners are more willing to eat an expensive meal at home.

These exciting new restaurants are increasingly popular, but the concept is still a work in progress. In Denver and San Francisco – the two cities where fine casual is most popular – restaurateurs are busily revamping their menu offerings and streamlining operations, to keep up with demand as they learn more about their new business model.

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