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Menu Moves: Restaurants add fast-casual options

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It’s no secret that fast-casual dining remains the hottest segment in foodservice. If you own a full-service restaurant, how can you compete? As the old adage goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

More restaurants are tweaking their operations—putting emphasis on takeout or grab-and-go options—to become full service/fast casual hybrids.

The latest solution comes from Romano’s Macaroni Grill. The chain added a new lunchtime Kitchen Counter ordering option last year, and the project was so successful the company recently decided to extend the counter-style format to dinner as well. Lunchtime guests can get a scratch-made meal to go for $7 guaranteed to be delivered in seven minutes or less; dinner runs $9, with a nine-minute turnaround.

Presumably the promotion was a hit, but not so popular that Macaroni Grill will offer it as a dinner option on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Still, going fast casual part-time could be a lifeline for many casual restaurants that have trouble filling up the dining room on weekday evenings.

The company is promoting the strategy with a clever TV ad.

Macaroni Grill isn’t alone. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store confirmed last month that it is developing a fast-casual concept expected to debut next summer. Executives said a fast-casual variation is part of an overall strategy to extend the Cracker Barrel brand.

To meet the expectations of the fast-casual customer, full-service restaurants need to adopt a takeout mindset. Another key to fast-casual success is efficiency. Macaroni Grill’s counter service offers a streamlined version of the restaurant’s full menu. At lunch, the menu includes fresh salads, classic dishes-turned-sandwiches, pastas and specialty Calzonettos (handheld baked pockets). Dinner options include Pork Belly & Chicken Carbonara, Prosciutto & Chicken Penne, Pesto Chicken Farfalle, Diavola Scaloppine and Chicken Milanese Panzanella.

Many independent operators are eyeing fast-casual spinoffs and retrofits as well. The latest is the popular Washington DC-area chef Peter Chang, who plans to open Peter Chang Wok, a casual, stripped-down version of his usual experience.

While all the details haven’t been worked out, Chang’s business partner recently told the Washington Post the cult chef’s elaborate menu will be modified for a fast-casual setting.

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