When Casual Dining Beats Fast-Casual, You Pivot
Not even a decade ago, many full-service operators watched in alarm as customers—led by value- and quality-seeking millennials—flocked to an ever-growing array of fast casuals on the market. And although the fast-casual segment is still seeing much success, customers are coming back around to casual dining—and some brands in the limited-service space want to come along with them.
Doc B’s Restaurant + Bar launched in September 2013 as an upscale fast casual with touches like real china and glassware, digital menuboards, and GPS table trackers. But the concept didn’t stay limited for long; it transitioned to a full-service operation within nine months of opening its first Chicago location. The reason? Customers were calling for it.
The original Doc B’s was designed as an order-at-the-counter concept with a full bar, complete with bartender; a liquor, beer, and wine program; and real menus for customers sitting at the bar.
“The guests started saying, ‘Can you take one of the menus from the bar and bring it to me at one of the tables?’” says owner and founder Craig Bernstein. “At the time, we only had two or three servers manning the dining room—running the drinks and food, bringing out ketchup, doing refills—so it started to stretch our staff a little bit thin.”
As demand kept growing and Bernstein saw the potential of the higher check average and noticeably stronger dinner business that come with operating a full-service brand, the need for a change became clear. Starting with its third location (it’ll have nine open units by summer), Doc B’s became a certified casual-dining restaurant.
A fellow Chicago brand, Tokyo-style ramen concept Furious Spoon, also began making the transition to a more full-service style late last year. Over the span of a few months, the concept rolled out the switch to its handful of freestanding locations.
Chef Shin Thompson says the new service model allows the brand to better serve and educate its guests, answering any questions they might have and making suggestions suited to their tastes. “We have a lot of things on the menu that are maybe a little bit foreign to a lot of people who are not familiar with the cuisine, and the Japanese ingredients require a little more explanation,” he says. “Now we’re able to walk them through the menu without any time restraints.”
Advantages aside, making the switch isn’t always easy. Doc B’s needed to alter the entire design of its restaurants, subbing TVs in place of digital menuboards; adding extra POS systems to avoid traffic build-up with their servers; and creating waiter stations to house extra plates and silverware. The concept also had to flesh out a larger menu filled with more dinner-focused items, from appetizers and desserts to a broad range of entrées.
“We’ve also updated our equipment in the kitchen to be able to execute these new items the right way, as opposed to just using the equipment we opened with that wasn’t originally intended for that,” Bernstein says.
Not to mention, altering its approach to staffing and training was a considerable undertaking for Furious Spoon. “We spent a ton of time on continued education and development, because we already had this staff that were great people, but they came to us for something different,” he says. “They came to us to run food, bus tables, take orders at the counter. And now they’re switching out martinis and marking for dessert placement.”
Ironically, this staffing conundrum is one of the biggest advantages Furious Spoon sees to transitioning to a full-service model. Thompson says the potential for higher tips has allowed it to attract better servers and retain its best employees—a critical advantage in today’s tight labor market.
For fast casuals considering a switch to full service, Thompson says it’s something that takes a lot of time and requires plenty of planning. “It’s really a process of making sure the right people are in the right place and all the training and systems are in place before the rollout,” he adds. “Take the time to do things right to make sure the transition goes more smoothly.”