Photograph by Robyn Lee/Creative Commons 2.0
Photograph by Robyn Lee/Creative Commons 2.0

How Fast Food Chains Make Decisions For You

Two words that describe 2014 America: casual and fast. When it comes to food, we wear jeans to $500 dinners and plow through meals as if filling our cars at gas stations rather than engaging in community rituals as old as our species.

It’s no surprise that fast-casual is an exploding sector of the restaurant economy. But as more discerning diners go outside the home for several, if not all, meals each day, the care and quality that goes into some fast-casual establishments can be downright shocking.

Comfortable seating vignettes, chummy atmospheres, and (often) beer and wine motivate diners to linger, making fast-casual restaurants a new “third-space” to relax that isn’t work or home. Fast-casual restaurants don’t mind diners squatting because, during crowded times, customers take their social cues from each other (i.e., angry stares) to determine when to leave. Not many claim the right to dawdle when the check was $12, so turnover is inherently high.

Last month Industree, a Washington, D.C. restaurant-industry organization, held a session on the “Fast Casual Explosion” featuring Nando’s Peri-Peri’s CEO and Chipotle’s Senior Marketing Strategist along with successful local entrepreneurs. When one audience member commented that fast-casual’s niche was offering “value,” one executive said: “We could put you in a closet and give you all the rice you could eat for a dollar. That’s value, but you wouldn’t come back.”

Fostering loyalty at a low price point in a foodie crowd educated by years of chef-TV seems impossible. But some fast-casual companies have done it with aplomb, and their strategies say a lot about how Americans view food.

As the food exec noted, value is just the beginning. Fast-casual restaurants strive to make diners feel so at home that customers will believe that the restaurant is a better alternative to eating at home. Frequented by customers enjoying middle- and higher-incomes, some fast-casual restaurants now boast high-quality antibiotic-free meat and local produce.

Chipotle was an early adapter and industry leader. “When sourcing meat we work hard,” Chipotle states on its website, “to find farmers and ranchers who are doing things the right way” and “to source ingredients in ways that protect this little planet of ours.” Don’t you wish you had a grocery store that offered such assurance and high-quality food, at a price point only slightly higher than its competitors?

Part of Chipotle’s lure is simplicity. We especially need simplicity because of the public confusion over food labeling (should we eat meat that is “natural” or “grassfed,” produce that is “local” or “organic”?). In the absence of government-mandated clarity (elusive due to some very effective lobbying) it appears so much easier to go to Chipotle or another trusted fast-casual restaurant with a health halo than to meal plan, source our own responsibly-grown ingredients, and prepare them before we even sit down to eat. We can bring kids, and it feels both like home and like an indulgence, but it isn’t expensive.

And no one has to cook!

Then again, no one has to cook. If we don’t practice cooking, we don’t get better at it, and if we don’t get better at it, then we don’t want to do it, discouraged and frustrated that we “can’t cook.” And then instead of having individual buying power to encourage grocery stores to purchase what people want, we hand power to corporations who will make those decisions.

“Corporation” is not a dirty word—some will be responsible, others will not. We can choose to frequent those that are. But most fast-casual restaurants with considerable buying power like Chipotle buy only a couple or few dozen ingredients, while grocery stores carry thousands. And some processed foods themselves contain dozens of ingredients. So it’s still individuals who care—you and me—who can dictate changes in the food system.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.