Fast Food Facelift: Fast Casual Restaurants Thrive as Fast Food Chains Struggle

In the last year sales in the fast casual sector reached $18 billion.

ByABC News
September 27, 2011, 3:17 PM

Sept. 27, 2011 -- Fast food is undergoing a facelift and the doctors behind it are some of America's most popular chefs.

Celebrity chefs from television shows like "Iron Chef," "Top Chef" and "The Chew" are whetting America's appetite for more sophisticated foods.

"We're seeing people interested in all sorts of tastes ... Mexican, Asian, Indian is really big right now," said Blair Chancey, editor of QSR Magazine.

While fast food chains and family restaurant chains are seeing their lowest sales all year, something right in the middle is sizzling, fast casual. It's a little more expensive than fast food, a little less than those family restaurants and the food is definitely different.

In the last year alone sales in the fast casual sector reached $18 billion. According to a new study, millions of Americans are no longer just looking for speed, they want quality. They are in search of fresh, natural and nutritious meals -- exactly what Chipotle's founder says his restaurant strives to offer.

"Just because it's fast doesn't mean it has to be a typical fast-food experience," Chipotle founder Steve Ells said.

Part of Chipotle's mission is to serve chickens that are fed a vegetarian diet as well as naturally raised pork and beef, he said.

Chipotle set the standard for fast casual success and now many other chefs are trying to cash in on the growing market.

In California, Jonathan Kaplan, creator of the Flip video camera, is turning from tech to taste. He is starting a chain of grilled cheese restaurants called The Melt.

"Americans want high quality, but they want it to be an affordable value and inexpensive, and that's what I think the fast casual industry is trying to do," Kaplan said. "There's really a niche there where restaurants are able to offer high-end quality ingredients, artisanal breads, really high quality cheeses, but they can do it at a fast casual price point."

Even the founder of Dominos, Tom Monaghan, at the age of 74 is leaving pizza behind for the gourmet burger. His soon-to-be opened establishment in Florida will deliver burgers in 10 to 15 minutes. He said he will be able to do so by limiting choice. The restaurant will offer only two burgers -- no sides, no drinks.

"My philosophy is not to try to be all things to all people -- to do one thing and do it extremely well, better than anyone else can possibly do it and I'm hoping that will spell success," he said.