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Quick Service Restaurant Trends

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The food service industry is constantly evolving to understand and meet the needs of current and potential customers. With new demand for at-home orders, delivery-friendly menu items, and additional to-go options for customers eating outside the restaurant, food businesses are working to accommodate new customer needs and wants.

QSR establishments continue to see ongoing changes in responding to technological and social developments. In this article, we outline the new normal for QSRs by looking at the top fast-casual trends of 2023. From mobile apps and reviews to lifestyle changes and artificial intelligence integration, we let you know which trends are going to stick around and give you an idea of how to handle them to remain profitable.

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Trend Changes Due to COVID-19

Several changes have impacted the restaurant industry, and new innovative QSR solutions have emerged to combat these unique challenges. Some of these solutions are likely to stick around as popular QSR trends for 2023.

1. Lifestyle Changes

In the last few years, much of the population has altered their lifestyles and changed their daily activities. New workplace setups and reconfigurations caused many restaurant employees and customers to change their usual quick service restaurant routines. Although some of these changes may recede in upcoming years, for now, there are new demands for accommodation.

Recently, the number of people working from home has tripled, and remote and hybrid workplaces have created regular customer loss for some businesses. With different morning commutes and opportunities to dine at home, customers are opting to drink coffee and prepare meals at home. Additionally, after-work rushes have been minimized as many people can migrate from their offices to their kitchens at the end of the day.

However, many customers haven’t given up their favorite QSR completely, as fast food drive-through pickups. In a recent survey, just over 40% of remote workers reported delivery as their go-to lunch method, compared to only 30% who dine out.

Many quick service establishments, like coffee shops, are seeing more business in the mid-morning and afternoon as opposed to their typical early morning long lines from a few years prior. Many QSRs have the added advantage of offering drive-thrus, which makes them an appealing option for socially-distanced meal pickup.

2. Purchase Habit Changes

Contactless ordering, payment, and pickup are becoming significant trends in the food service industry. Although many QSRs operate with dining rooms and full tables, customers still enjoy curbside pickup or door drop-off. Compared to dine-in, online food ordering has grown 300%, making up around 40% of restaurant sales.

Some customers prefer contactless meal delivery for health reasons, while others enjoy controlling when they place their orders and get their food. Some people find that ordering at kiosks or on their mobile devices takes less time than ordering at a table or register. Additionally, people can customize their orders without fear of choosing the wrong ingredients or needing to repeat their orders for clarification.

Due to these changes, many smaller restaurants and coffee shops have created makeshift or temporary drive-throughs, curbside pickup areas, or walk-up stands to serve more customers without bringing more people inside the buildings.

The increased demand for drive-thru services meant QSRs needed to be equipped for long lines of cars and potentially impatient customers. The right shade structure can create a welcoming atmosphere and provide ample weather protection to enhance the customer experience. In addition, sending workers out on foot to gather more customers’ orders in advance can help streamline and speed up the drive-thru process.

Another area that requires swift action is takeout services. Quick pick-up services ensure a positive customer experience and a steady stream of revenue from repeat orders. Many QSRs used the opportunities presented by online ordering and curbside pickup to reach new customers and encourage repeat business.

Ultimately, these off-premises QSR coronavirus solutions can be a great investment. Many QSRs were forced to adapt quickly to overcome challenges such as creating a curbside pickup service, organizing their own in-house systems, or engaging with third-party vendors. The convenience of a drive-thru or delivery won’t go away anytime soon, which means off-premises purchasing is likely to remain an ongoing trend.

3. Restaurant Performance Changes

The purchase habit changes of consumers during the pandemic have directly impacted the way restaurants operate. QSRs in particular have shifted their focus to takeout and delivery efforts, striving to make the fast-food scene even faster and convenient. As many restaurants rush to accommodate the increased demand for contactless convenience, one factor is shaping up to play the biggest role in determining QSR performance — location.

With larger cities and more urban areas experiencing more intense COVID-19 shutdowns and stricter guidelines, restaurants are racing to buy up suburban properties. While urban city centers may lag in their indoor dining recovery, suburban restaurants will likely start serving customers inside sooner.

A suburban location also grants a QSR more space to build a drive-thru and ample room for curbside pickup spots. As QSRs continue catering to contactless guests, restaurant prototypes will be designed with smaller dining rooms, tech-savvy drive-thrus, more curbside pickup areas with shade structures, and built-in pickup windows for mobile orders. The QSRs of the future look smaller, more tech-friendly, and even more convenient for picking up food on-the-go.

The location switch has another layer backing it. Restaurant owners are finding new ways to connect with their customer base while the demand for fast service and minimal interaction is rising. In suburban areas, restaurants find it easier to craft relationships with community leaders, stakeholders, and other businesses.

Additionally, more space means having more opportunities to host large events and get more involved with customers. Although customers may not be dining in, they can still enjoy having birthday parties, school fundraiser events, and similar events at their favorite food place.

Some QSRs offer coupons and vouchers to encourage customers to come again during these events. This way, QSRs can encourage local community members to stop by more frequently and build up a regular customer base.

4. Healthy Menu Changes

Many people are now more conscious of their health, and QSRs are taking steps to offer clean ingredients, options, and environments. QSRs are filling their menus with plant-based alternatives, diet drinks, and low-calorie or low-carb salads and sandwiches.

Many restaurants are highlighting their fresh ingredients and offering options for those who are vegan or vegetarian or have other dietary restrictions. They’re also fostering deeper relationships with local farmers to deliver sustainable and healthy options their customers appreciate. QSRs are starting to highlight high-protein options or vegetable and fruit dishes and shifting their focus from traditional fan favorites to new nutritious items that can appeal to a broader range of customers.

Another health-related trend for QSRs is cleanliness. About 75% of people won’t go to a restaurant with reviews highlighting poor cleanliness, and 66% of people are unwilling to revisit a location with bad food hygiene. Recent sanitary guidelines have ensured restaurants provide clean and safe environments for guests, and these measures will likely stick around. A few measures were upgrades to former operations, such as contactless payment methods and QR code menus, which are likely going to be around for the long haul.

5. Outdoor Dining Changes

Outdoor dining has become an enjoyable experience for numerous customers. Although it began as an innovative solution for the food industry, outdoor dining has become a new favorite way to eat for many.

QSRs are using outdoor dining spaces as a unique way to help their businesses stand out. QSRs are transforming the typical fast dining experience with table-side grills, floral designs, and pleasant environments. They’re building more private spaces for guests and enabling themselves to accommodate more guests by increasing their available space.

Restaurants have made their outdoor dining areas more appealing and comfortable for guests by providing shade solutions. A high-quality shade sail structure is both visually appealing and practical. Colorful canopies or vibrant umbrellas can complement the landscape architecture and branding, and enhance the customer experience while serving the purpose of shielding guests from harmful UV rays and reducing heat.

While dining al fresco was already a popular option for many restaurants during warm summer months, recent years turned eating outdoors in the winter into one of the most unlikely quick service restaurant industry trends. QSRs in colder climates have adapted to winter outdoor dining by offering other amenities along with shade solutions to help customers brave the elements more comfortably. For instance, providing space heaters and electric fireplaces can keep guests warm while they enjoy their meals.

Of course, outdoor dining will stick around for a while. Customers gravitate towards relaxing and socializing on a restaurant’s patio on a summer day. However, the concept of having a meal outside mid-winter will likely fall from popularity when it’s no longer in the name of health and safety. QSRs can still utilize these spaces during the winter by operating with retractable doors and similar features, encouraging guests to get a glimpse of the outside while staying warm and comfortable.

6. Consumer Communication Changes

Staying in touch through different ways of communication is essential for QSRs during this time. Restaurants need to convey to consumers that they are taking every precaution to ensure their establishment is a safe place to order food if they want customers to trust them. Many customers want to know exactly how a restaurant is protecting their health and how their food is prepared.

In addition to emphasizing safety, restaurants need to make sure consumers are aware of the services they offer. Most consumers want contactless options right now and are willing to try new restaurants that meet this demand. Advertising their drive-thru, curbside pickup, carry-out, and delivery options as often as possible will help QSRs land more customers and generate more revenue.

Now is the perfect time for QSRs to revamp their brands and up their marketing efforts. Changing the tone of messaging and marketing to concentrate on transparency, cleanliness, community and local markets can help a restaurant appeal to more customers. With time spent online and in apps increasing during the pandemic, making the most of digital channels to communicate with customers will pay off heavily for QSRs.

Here are six of the best ways QSRs can reach consumers right now:

  1. Social media: Nowadays, having an active social media account is key for a QSR’s success. Posting engaging content can build a loyal following as well as keep people informed on the restaurant’s latest menu items, services, savings, and safety practices.
  2. TV commercials: With so many people staying home and watching TV with their families, commercials can be an extremely effective way of communicating with consumers right now. A bit of airtime to advertise a new curbside pickup service or delivery deal can score a QSR more sales.
  3. Online ads: The internet is a great way for QSRs to reach a wider audience because nearly everyone spends at least some amount of time online each day. And with the ability to post text, still photos, or video content as well as target certain demographics, advertising online is one of the best methods for gaining customers. Social media is also a great place for a QSR to roll out its digital ad campaign.
  4. Emails: When it comes to targeted customer communications, emails are critical. Once someone signs up to receive alerts, promos, or newsletters in their inbox, the restaurant can send deals curated specifically for them based on their past purchases and dining preferences. Personalized emails are a great way to form a strong customer relationship and inspire brand loyalty.
  5. Apps: With their own apps, QSRs can make ordering delivery or takeout from them as easy as the tap of a button. Fast-casual restaurants can use their apps to connect even more with customers by letting them rack up rewards for each visit and earn more points by playing games in the app.
  6. Influencers: Some of the best marketing tactics for QSRs right now is teaming up with influencers. In the age of Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and other digital platforms, customers enjoy seeing their favorite influencers enjoying their favorite food. QSRs are going viral for celebrity pairings and fun trends. You can expand your customer base by partnering with a famous personality who can share your message across their social media and to their fanbase.

While these six strategies offer a convenient way to connect with customers from a distance, they fit right in with the Digital Age. The restaurant industry has been on course for more technological interaction with consumers for years. Now, they’re getting more creative, crafting personalities, and showcasing their interest in accommodating their customers.

7. Focus Changes

Because consumers are constantly seeking quicker, more convenient methods of receiving their food from fast-casual restaurants, many QSRs had already been looking into offering more delivery, drive-thru or takeout options. However, contactless curbside pickup has recently surged in popularity over the past few years. This sudden interest in a grab-and-go service caused mobile order-ahead to become one of the most prominent restaurant consumer trends.

Customers enjoy being able to mobile order-ahead because it is an extremely efficient channel. The wait time for order-ahead pickup is up to 2.4 times quicker than in-store ordering. Ordering ahead via a mobile app saves customers time mainly by allowing them to pay ahead. A mobile front-end transaction allows for more streamlined curbside pickups or a cashier-less checkout inside the restaurant.

Although many fast-casual restaurants were slowly expanding their app technology, many QSRs are kicking their app development into high gear. Specifically, QSRs are relying on mobile app technology to help them manage orders and get customers in and out quickly. Because consumers don’t want to wait any longer than necessary when picking up their mobile order, speed is of utmost importance.

Along with being the quickest in-house option for QSRs, ordering ahead for pickup from a mobile app or website is also the most cost-effective strategy for them to adopt. Investing in furthering their online and mobile app order for pickup services will help fast-casual restaurants retain more customers, increasing their profitability and overall return on investment.

Many QSRs are rewarding their consumers for using their apps. Places are offering incentives like loyalty perks and special privileges for app users. Some restaurants have made certain menu items only available for app users, prompting them to mobile order when they’re craving a new favorite.

Other QSRs offer point systems where users can earn free menu items or money off their order after spending a set monetary limit or reaching a status tier of spending. Many QSRs also offer first-time users free items to encourage new customers to download their apps.

Here’s how mobile order-ahead pickup can benefit the business of a QSR:

  • Capture more sales from consumers who may have gone to a different restaurant if the line had been too long
  • Create shorter wait times so more customers can be served during the QSR’s peak hours
  • Provide up-sell opportunities to a larger number of customers
  • Build customer loyalty by giving each guest a great brand experience

Consumers have been demanding more convenience and timely options from fast-casual restaurants, but the last few years led many QSRs to deliver on these demands sooner than they expected or in ways they hadn’t anticipated. The solutions have paved the way for QSRs to fulfill their promises, and now is the time to perfect methods and discover what works best.

8. Restaurant Digitization Changes

The food service industry is integrating online payments, search engines, and maps into their businesses. This digitization makes the food ordering process even more straightforward and convenient for customers.

One of the most significant changes we’ve seen recently is the integration of payment platforms. PayPal and Apple Pay have started taking over payment methods. Rather than pulling out their wallets and inputting card information, app users can pay for their meals through existing payment platforms. This makes the process convenient and adds a layer of security, as users don’t have to trust QSRs with their direct credit or debit card information.

Restaurants are also utilizing maps and search engines to appeal to consumers. Along with finding locations nearby, users can now see the option to order right on the search engine. Consumers without the app can still place an order online without creating an account or signing up for emails and promotions. This is an excellent option for people who want to try a new food place without committing to repeat business, opening the doors for more and more people to stop by your location and find a new favorite.

Furthering digitization, customers are relying on reviews more so now than ever. Currently, 86% of customers stop doing business with a QSR based on negative reviews. Because so much of the food industry is going digital, it’s easier for customers to monitor how your business is performing. It’s crucial to address concerns in your reviews and actively meet demands to ensure you stay profitable.

9. Artificial Intelligence Changes

Because online ordering is going to keep growing, additional tools, like artificial intelligence (AI), are making their way into the QSR industry. Creating apps, websites, and in-restaurant kiosks is already a commonplace occurrence, but AI is changing the game.

AI can help increase your profits and help with upselling menu items. One of the most significant benefits of AI is its ability to make suggestions as the user is ordering. This technology can recommend items that pair with meals and individual items. Some places are using AI to encourage customers to upsize their drink and side orders, while others suggest desserts and offer food pairings.

Online ordering makes it easier for consumers to customize their orders. For example, adding ingredients and making requests for food preparation can raise the customer’s total and deliver more satisfaction. With AI technology, your business can make these suggestions and encourage customers to make changes to their orders. Suggesting popular sides, highlighting an extra sauce, recommending additions based on past orders, and offering low-cost desserts to pair with an order can increase your sales.

Maintaining QSR Growth

It is safe to say transformative technologies will continue to develop within the quick service restaurant industry. Because health and safety will remain a top priority among consumers, more technological advancements will become available to meet this demand.

Fast-casual restaurants will need to stay connected with consumers to understand what their customers expect. The physical spaces of QSRs will be reinvented to better serve customers who want more contactless options and minimal face-to-face interaction. This concept will inspire innovative solutions, such as smart menu boards and different ways to pre-order for pickup.

While the industry continues to evolve rapidly, QSRs need to remain flexible and competitive to stay profitable. Life can change quickly, and restaurants need to be able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and overcome challenges to stay in the game. Although it can be difficult to prepare for the unknown, QSRs can take steps to ensure they’re ready for other quick service restaurant trends that have sparked.

Here are five ways to maintain QSR growth:

  1. Create a loyalty program: If you don’t have an app or website to draw users, creating these should be your first step. User-friendly applications and quick service options will be valuable assets for your business moving forward in the industry. Additionally, creating a loyalty program can impress your customer base and increase sales. Research has shown that loyalty programs can lead to a 20% increase in profits. These programs encourage users to return for more rewards and make your business a regular stop.
  2. Create seasonal promotions: Not every menu will be a big seller. Planning your menu involves determining which products cost your business money and which excel. Eliminate the low-selling items your customer base is detaching from and plan seasonal promotions for new items. Draw interest around high-value items and find ways to incorporate big hits throughout the year to draw new consumers.
  3. Fight the lulls with foot traffic: Every QSR experiences lulls. Some hours throughout the day are naturally busier than others, and some places notice a downfall during specific times of the week. Rather than wasting these hours, you can encourage customers to stop by for a promotion. Offering two items for the price of one, reducing a meal cost, providing a free dessert, or multiplying the points a user can earn at certain times can draw consumers to your business during your dead hours.
  4. Upgrade your POS system: QSRs can use technology to train employees, upsell to customers, create staffing schedules, surface insights on best-selling items, promote specials, and track sales. Make your system work for you by automating some of the routine practices in your company. These automated actions can give you more accurate readings and enable you to spend more time on what matters most — pleasing your customers.
  5. Reduce your company shrinkage: Wandering items, either from customers or employees, can cost your business thousands of dollars every year. Invest in video surveillance, create automated cash solutions, and develop standard practices for your staff to reduce shrinkage and remain profitable.

Let USA SHADE Help Your Restaurant Keep Up With Industry Trends

If you’re ready to invest in the QSR changes and trends for health and safety, check out the QSR shade solutions from USA SHADE. From chic, modern drive-thru shade solutions to commercial outdoor dining canopies, USA SHADE has the perfect shade structure for all your QSR needs. Whether you’re looking to make your outdoor seating area more inviting and comfortable for guests or add a new curbside pickup area, USA SHADE can help make your vision a reality.

With 30 years of experience providing functional and visually stunning shade solutions, USA SHADE is the reliable choice for custom permanent shade structures. With each of our high-quality, durable commercial shade structures and cantilever structures, we pledge a lasting partnership and unparalleled expertise for our customers. Our expert team collaborates with you from the initial design phase to installation, so you can be confident you’re getting the right shade structure for your QSR.

Our QSR curbside pickup shades can reduce the surrounding temperature on the sunniest days, grant you peace of mind with durability during windy days, and offer customization to fit your business’s needs. We have a large variety of options to provide protection and enhance your consumer’s dining experience. Whether you’re transforming the drive-thru experience, adding new drive-thru lanes for faster service, or creating a comfortable environment for drivers to grab their meals, we can meet your needs.

To learn more about how our shade structures can help your QSR reshape the dining experience, contact USA SHADE today.