The Casual Dining Crunch And The Rise Of The Sustainable Independent

Over the past ten years, sustainability in the restaurant world has gone from a beneficial selling point to a necessity in many different market sectors, and whilst three of those years are far from a normal trading environment, it only served to accelerate a trend that was already happening.

There are a lot of reasons for this and many ways restaurants can make themselves more ecologically sound, from their choice of wholesale aprons to their choice of food suppliers.

However, almost all of the reasons relate to the changing needs and desires of customers who are increasingly conscious of the impact of their choices as consumers, as well as a major change in dining habits where consumers on the whole eat less often in restaurants but want a more unique experience in the process.

This contributed to a major shift known as the “casual dining crunch” as well as the rise of more sustainable restaurants in its wake.


What Was The Casual Dining Crunch?

There are many different types of restaurants from exquisite sit-down fine dining establishments to fast-food takeaways, but when it comes to sit-down restaurants that people go to as an evening event, the typical divide is between casual and fine dining.

The differences are primarily cost-related and the implications that typically come from this. Fine dining menus are typically unique, exotic and upscale, with average costs per head being somewhat substantial in the process.

By contrast, casual dining was far more mid-market and had relatively limited menus and food that was affordable enough for people to eat out more regularly.

These were chains such as Pizza Express, Nandos, Prezzo, Byron and Zizzi, amongst many others, and from 2010 until 2016 many of these names enjoyed a rapid expansion, helped by funding from private equity firms investing with the belief that they were the next booming leisure industry.

The problem with rapid expansion and increasing numbers of chains is that as profit margins became ever slimmer, costs were cut either to food quality or staff numbers in order to protect their growth, leading to customers going elsewhere in a saturated market.


The Day Zero Restaurant

Closures were ramping up in 2018 and 2019 and a shutdown of the leisure industry in 2020 and its limited and difficult reopening in 2021 and early 2022 accelerated a trend that was already in place for a lot of casual dining chain restaurants.

Instead, people decided to eat out less often but choose more carefully where they wanted to eat, with sustainability, authenticity and local ingredients often taking precedence over convenience, at least when it came to sit-in restaurants.

The role of casual dining for customers was replaced by either eating in, takeaways or the rise of both street food and pop-up restaurants that offer a versatile range of foods and fresh experiences compared to a casual dining chain restaurant.

The idea of the experience restaurant has also seen a revival, such as the unique likes of teppanyaki grills, where chefs often cook food directly in front of the diners.

March 10, 2023 — Jacob Blakey