Fast Casual Execs Adopt QSR Approach

When Tom Ryan left the world of quick-service, he had no idea what he’d find or take to the fast casual segment.
Ryan had recognized a fundamental change in consumers’ expectations and their need for a new balance of how they spent their time and money. So, he took his experiences working at restaurant chains such as Long John Silver’s and McDonald’s, and brought them first to Quiznos and then to Smashburger, the fast casual concept he founded in 2007.


Ryan designed Smashburger – owned by Consumer Capital Partners in which Ryan is chief concept officer and managing partner – based on consumers’ desires for a different type of restaurant experience. The concept also was designed around some of the operational elements Ryan saw successfully used in the quick-service environment.
The most important element, he said, was kitchen design.

“I really believe the heart and soul of every restaurant is the kitchen engine,” he said. “We modeled our Smashburger kitchen very much off the premise and principles of how a QSR kitchen is designed.”

The company’s kitchen is designed to operate with three to four employees who are all trained to manage a high throughput system, and burger patties are prepared in advance to save time. The types of employees the company hires are sourced from the quick-serve, fast casual and casual dining segments.

“Those kinds of operating principles are part of the rigor and magic that make most fast casual chains,” Ryan said. “The other hallmark of the fast food segment relative to the dining out environment is the way menu boards are laid out. We really worked hard to craft menu boards that gave kitchen direction quickly and gave customers order options in a fast format.”

Ryan isn’t the only former QSR executive taking lessons learned from one industry segment to another.
Craig Dunaway, president of Penn Station East Coast Subs spent nearly 10 years as a Papa John’s franchisee.
Dunaway said while taking care of the customer is a big rule for fast casual chains, “fast food (restaurants) did not bring that to the table. One of the things I learned was to take care of the customer.”

During his time spent in the pizza business, Dunaway said he also learned customers were willing to pay more for quality products. “People looked at quick-service restaurants and the $4 to $6 price point and wanted concepts that offered better products,” he said. “With the aging demographics, people were looking for more than a burger.”

Service is one large differentiator between fast casual and QSR brands. Operational ease also plays into what the quick-service segment has taught fast casual executives. “Fast casual people have tried to bring simplicity to the operational side. Anytime you complicate operations, you make it harder for the crew. If you don’t take care of the crew they’re not going to take care of the guest,” Dunaway said.

Paul Ballard, founder and CEO of WOW Café and Wingery, has a quick-service and fast casual branch of the restaurant.
“QSR is built on speed, and I think that the fast casual consumer gives you a little bit more leeway with more of the semi service,” he said. Ballard believes QSRs run into the challenge of putting out quality food quickly, which is why the menu at WOW’s quick-serve operation is much more limited.

Ryan said he also learned that how the menu items are displayed plays an important role in fast casual operations. He said the chain’s menu board is easy to order from, is organized and also tries to be focused on what their target audience really wants. “We really worked hard to craft menu boards that gave kitchen direction quickly and gave customers order options in a fast format,” he said.