Revisiting Casualization

people eating at a long table in an open and casual restaurant

Casualization is on the rise and consumer expectations are shifting. Here’s what you need to know about this sea change.

It has been almost 10 years since Gordon Food Service first alerted customers to the casualization trend, which has blurred traditional segment lines and brought upscale ingredients, menu items and service to every dining sector. Here’s what you need to know about casualization today.

The Operational Angle

Casualization of the dining experience has not only continued, it has accelerated as guest preferences evolve rapidly along generational lines. Younger consumers expect every location to offer the kind of high-quality food and service that baby boomers used to associate only with fine dining—and they want to enjoy the food and service in a friendly, welcoming environment.  

Based on our most recent field research, there are four key casualization markers for front-of-the-house operations.  

1. Shared plates and smaller-plate offerings 

The stuffiness or pretense that used to surround shared and smaller plates has vanished—along with the appetizer section of many menus—as consumers opt for varied flavour experiences without overindulging or busting their wallets. The demand for this category is revving up across the dining spectrum.

At first glance, this may seem like it’s exclusively a culinary opportunity. But sharing a greater variety of new and unique flavours with a group is just as much about the front-of-the-house experience—and that makes it an opportunity for brand positioning in the market. Culinary is “what” you offer, operational is “who” you are. Offering shared and smaller plates demonstrates that you understand emerging demographics’ demands for choice and sociability. 

2. Ambiance of accommodation

The battle for market share and the awareness-generating impact of social media have driven operators to new heights of accommodation. Operators are striving to say “yes” to virtually every request, either through proactive planning or at the point of ordering. Think of it as delivering fine dining service standards without the pretense.

Accommodating guests can include everything from meeting special dietary requests (like gluten-free and non-GMO), asking about specific requests or allergies before taking an order, providing free Wi-Fi and charging stations and offering pre-order/pre-pay options for takeout.

3. Sharing of an experience

Today’s guests—many of whom consider themselves “foodies”—expect front-of-house staff to possess in-depth knowledge about the menu and its ingredients. And they want staffers to be able to share that knowledge with them in a welcoming and unpretentious way.

It’s not about listing the ingredients of a dish, it’s about telling a story that may encompass the source of the ingredients, the origin of the recipe, the preparation methods used, the flavour profile and more. It’s about engaging guests at the table and encouraging them to ask questions. It’s about providing an authentic experience, not just serving a meal.

4. Evolution of the physical operation

As restaurants have become more inclusive and accommodating, so too have they opened up their physical spaces. We’re seeing more open kitchens allowing diners a view of chefs and cooks at work. Some of these staffers are coming out from behind the order-up counter to actually serve food to guests—there is increasingly no delineation between the front and back of the house.

It’s not just spaces that are changing appearance. Operators are shaping guest expectations for a high-level experience by outfitting employees in uniforms that express professionalism without pretense. Even menus are getting a facelift, as operators are focusing on smaller, more focused core menus that more clearly communicate the offering and the brand.

The Culinary Perspective

By Gerry Ludwig, CEC

Though there is considerable overlap between the front and back of the house in terms of the four casualization markers outlined by Doug, there are distinct culinary trends and implications for operators.

1. Shared plates and smaller-plate offerings 

The migration of upscale ingredients from fine dining to other foodservice segments continues apace. In our most recent research, we saw ingredients like truffle oil, caviar and foie gras on the menus of casual restaurants, sandwich shops and even food trucks. 

At the same time, we’re seeing less-costly ingredients—like chicken thighs, turkey legs and rough cuts of meat—incorporated into more menus. The humble egg has become the centrepiece of leading-edge dishes. And a variety of simple grains are showing up everywhere.

Both the high-end and unassuming ingredients are being prepared by highly talented chefs, the kind of professionals that 10-20 years ago would be plying their craft at five-star restaurants. Casualization has shrunk the fine-dining segment and opened up opportunities for them to apply their creativity and skills in a wider variety of environments. 

The result is a wildly inventive and ever evolving palette of dishes that encompasses such disparate elements as nose-to-tail cooking, global fusion and veg-centric cuisine.

Shared plates and smaller plates, characterized by more flavour and more variety, may be the ultimate expression of this culinary adventure—for both chefs and guests.

2. Ambiance of accommodation

Pre-casualization, it was much more difficult to accommodate special requests from guests. Most kitchens simply didn’t have the level of skill required. That’s changed, as highly prepared and passionate chefs continue to leave fine dining for casual opportunities—or just jump right into the casual market after their training.

Many of these chefs are well versed on the issues surrounding food allergies and restrictive diets, from gluten-free to vegan. They can not only prepare dishes meeting special dietary requirements, they can turn around these dishes at the same pace as “regular” menu items—an incredibly valuable distinction in this competitive landscape.

Accommodation extends to the capability to quickly and easily satisfy changing consumer dietary preferences. Many chefs are themselves ardent supporters of sustainable agriculture, and they’re eager to incorporate local, organic and other eco-friendly attributes into their menus. 

They’re also happy to explore new culinary directions and are typically the first to embrace emerging macro-trends like veg-centric cooking, which puts vegetables at the centre of the plate and makes them craveable with high-impact proteins and other finishes.

3. Sharing of an experience

Now that front-of-the-house staffers are expected to be able to speak knowledgeably with guests about everything from ingredient sources to preparation methods, the onus is on back-of-the-house personnel to provide that information. Chefs who can clearly communicate their knowledge and passion to servers make a huge difference in the level of service any restaurant is able to provide. 

4. Evolution of the physical operation

Doug mentioned that open kitchens are becoming more prevalent. Some operators are taking the impulse to open up the physical space one step further and bringing kitchens right out into the dining floor. We’re seeing workstations bordering dining rooms, where cooks and chefs are doing mis en place for everyone to see.

Such setups allow an operator to demonstrate real transparency. Of course, they require kitchen staffers to maintain the highest standards of sanitation, food safety and professional conduct at all times. 

Light retail components and all-day dining are also transforming physical operations. The former involves offering self-serve yet highly customizable selections that can be enjoyed in a retail space adjacent to the restaurant or taken to go. The latter often entails switching between quick service in the morning and full-service later in the day. Both afford culinary staff the opportunity—and challenge—to demonstrate versatility and flexibility.

Considering Casualization?

If you think casualization might be right for your foodservice operation, let your Sales Representative know. They may be able to connect you with a team of experts to help you work through the switch.