It's not a bad day when your restaurant is rated high enough by a large enough number of customers to earn a spot on the 2012 Zagats Best Fast Food list. That is, unless you are Chipotle (CMG), Corner Bakery, Jasons Deli, Panera Bread (PNRA), or Starbucks (SBUX). There are no Zagats Fast Food survey graphics on the front page of their websites of these chains, no press releases from their PR departments, no Zagat's entry on their awards and recognition index. There's no bragging by these five restaurant chains whatsoever about the recent "bests" they were awarded by Zagats readers.
So, why wouldn't these restaurant chains want to piggyback on the reputation of the Zagats organization and the popularity of its annual fast food survey? There could be many reasons, but in fact, Chipotle, Corner Bakery, Jasons Deli, Panera Bread and Starbucks consider themselves, position themselves, and market themselves as fast casual restaurants. The dubious Zagat recognition came from a "fast food" survey, which they are not.
That may seem like a pompous postulated response from mass marketers of mass-produced food, but it's not too difficult to understand. No matter where you go in the world, it's not a really great time to be associated with "fast food."
The President of the Ontario Student Trustees Association has just launched a high-profile campaign urging students of all ages to "Stick It to Fast Food." The Health Minister of Singapore announced this week that the government will be reviewing advertising guidelines, with an eye on banning fast food and junk food ads that target children. This is in response to the World Health Organization's strong suggestion that its member countries somehow restrict the advertisement of fatty, sugary, and salty foods to children.
Norway, Sweden, and Quebec, Ontario have already banned fast food ads that are aimed at children under the age of 12. Finland Denmark, the UK and South Korea regulate fast food and junk food advertisements aimed at children. The one member of the World Health Organization that is glaringly absent from the list of countries taking action against fast food and junk food advertisers is the U.S., the mother ship of the largest fast food restaurant chains and franchises around the world.
This is also understandable considering that the restaurant chain with the most locations in the world is Subway, the restaurant chain with the most annual revenue in the world is McDonald's (MCD), and the restaurant company with the most collective clout is YUM Brands (YUM), the ruling authority over the Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut global dynasties. To place limits on these companies in any way is to threaten the profitability of the U.S. retail industry. Since retail consumption (and overconsumption) is what largely fuels the U.S. economy, "limits" are not a serious part of anybody's conversation for long.
Interestingly enough, in the era of power-to-the-people, some of the largest U.S. fast food restaurants are making adjustments that are driven by the shifting sensibilities of eating-out consumers.
Taco Bell, the home of under-a-buck-it's-not-that-good-but-there's-plenty-of-it fast food is trying to make the move into the hearts and palates of fast casual customers with its Cantina Bell menu. It's easy to see from the first burrito and salad offerings on the Cantina Bell menu that the chain is trying to shift towards a fast casual image for its food in an effort to compete with fast casual competitors like Chipotle.
Surprisingly, though the Chipotle chain, which is often credited for being a pioneer of defining the fast casual category, seems to be moving in the opposite direction. With plans to add drive-thru window service to its stores, the sustainable food mecca for conscious eaters on the go will either tarnish its healthy brand image with the addition of the fast food drive-thru strategy, or else redefine the standards for the type of meals that could - and should - be delivered through a drive-up window.
Some are worried that a Chipotle drive-thru will compromise the interactive build-your-own Chipotle experience. Personally I would be more concerned that Chipotle customers will be compromising the safe operation of their vehicles while trying to maneuver a Chipotle concoction which is tasty but messy, and definitely not portable.
Taco Bell is not the only chain that is wanting to elevate its brand above the evildoing image that is building for the fast food industry around the world. McDonald's has been hoping that its coffee drinks and smoothies will make it less fast food-ish and more fast casual-esque in the minds of potential customers. Arby's will be trying to adopt a fast casual image with advertising that focuses on meat that is fresh sliced in each Arby's location. Wendy's has started adding upscale ingredients like portobello mushrooms to attract fast casual lovers.
Nice ideas, but I think these fast food chains are missing the point. Fast casual eaters don't just want to dine in a restaurant with an elevated image. They actually want to eat better food. Perhaps the fast food chains should work on that first, and save the image-building for later.
And speaking of image-building, the shunning of the Zagats Fast Food Survey results by so many major chains is no small thing. So a renaming of the survey in 2013 seems inevitable. The addition of a fast casual category seems logical. And an apology to Chipotle, Corner Bakery, Jasons Deli, Panera Bread, and Starbucks might be forthcoming for the implication that these chains are members of the fast food team, or even playing in the same league.