Millenials Anchor Food Trends in the Fast Casual Sector

High quality, affordable food is driving the new trend from high end to fast casual. Restaurant owners and operators are trading in white linen tablecloths for drinking jars and pick-up serving lines. Spawned by a desire to continue eating out at an affordable price during the recession, baby boomers and millennials are carrying the trend well into the economic recovery period.

It’s unlikely you’ll be seeing food giants closing the doors of their flagship, upscale dining establishments any time soon. Still, as this trend continues to grow, you probably will see a growing number of casual sister restaurants with familiar names displayed on their doors. According to Nation’s Restaurant News, “For the fifth consecutive year, the fast-casual segment’s growth in traffic far surpassed that of every other restaurant segment in the 12-month period ended in November 2013.”

Shula Burger, bearing the name of football legend Don Shula is the new, fast casual arm of the upscale chain of Shula’s Steakhouses and Shula’s 347 Grill. In 2011, Shula announced the launch of the Shula Burger restaurant line in the midst of the financial crisis and has since opened an additional four locations.

The new, cost-conscious concept has created the opportunity for a larger demographic to enjoy dining out without the high-ticket price traditionally associated with the Shula name. The menu stars a variety of burgers with premium toppings including roasted tomatoes, Gruyère cheese, red onion jam, and roasted corn and black bean salsa, along with the traditional ketchup, mayo, and mustard. If you’re not in the mood for a burger, you can try the Shula Steak Sandwich, The Big Dog, or one of their many salads.

Along with football legend Shula, culinary icon Chef Bradley Ogden, the two-time James Beard Foundation award winner, is taking his turn in the casual market. Establishing himself as a pioneer in the upscale farm-to-table realm, Ogden has wrapped up his ten-year role as restaurateur in the Las Vegas Ceasars Palace and is teaming up with his son, Chef Bryan Ogden to take his farm-to-table passion straight to the Lone Star State. With decades of experience developing fine dining establishments, Bradley Ogden is looking to casual concepts to expand his same farm-to-table focus.

The Ogdens’ first fast casual concept, Funky Chicken, launched in December of 2013, brought a whole new meaning to the Houston, Texas, understanding of fried chicken joint. The concept features all natural, organic, and humanely raised chicken with fresh sides like roasted baby sprouts, quinoa salad, and roasted Brussels sprouts, along with several traditional sides. The fast-casual concept mixes convenience with affordability and ingenuity. According to a recent article by Bon Appetit, that’s just the kind of mashup millenials are looking for.

The Ogdens are in good company with their move to casual fare. Other chefs making headlines in the market include Spike Mendelsohn, a contestant from Top Chef and Top Chef Allstars and owner and operator of many fast-casual spots in Washington, D.C.; celebrity chef Bobby Flay with his Bobby’s Burger Palace chain; and world-renowned chef David Chang, who began his career offering elevated food in a casual environment.

The good news for all you foodies is that these impressive culinarians didn’t pack up their knives and look to more lucrative opportunities out of the kitchen during the recession. The better news is, because they traded the high-end locales, high-end culinary thought is the driver behind many affordable options making it onto the plates of more average Janes and Joes.

Chelsea B. Sanz
Chelsea B. Sanz

Chelsea Sanz has lived in East Tennessee since her family moved here from South Florida just before she started high school. While she initially begrudged her new home state, she eventually realized she had come to not only love it, but to “bleed orange” as University of Tennessee Volunteers fans here like to say. She and her boyfriend Hunter, a trail worker for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, enjoy exploring the nation’s most visited national park and coming up with their own farm-to-table recipes.

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