Fast casual food is so hot right now.
The market for fast casual food, which is almost but not quite fast food (I’ll get to that in a second), has grown by 550 percent since 1999, more than ten times the growth seen in the fast food industry over the same period, according to data from market research firm Euromonitor. Chipotle, likely the best known purveyor of the category, has seen its sales more than quadruple during that time; Panera, another oft-used example, has watched its sales more than triple; and Shake Shack, the hamburger joint du jour, has done so well that it just went public despite operating only 36 outlets.
Americans spent more than $21 billion at fast casual restaurants last year, according to data from market research firm Euromonitor, which is not bad, considering that the category is only loosely defined at best.
Everyone agrees that fast casual is the next big thing, but it’s surprisingly hard to define what it is exactly. What makes fast casual food fast causal—and not simply fast food? And at what point do we draw the line between fast casual placesand the likes of Applebee’s and Chili’s, which have table service, but also takeout? The answer might simply depend on whom you ask.