Fine Dining Is Finally Getting a Casual Makeover

Although "fine casual" isn't a term that has really caught on yet, growing chains such as Fresh to Order may be doing for fine dining what fast casual did for fast food. But is this a trend that will change the way we look at how fine food is seen and served, or is it simply a fad, a bit of fancy nomenclature hitching its wagon to fast casual's rising star?

Source: Company SEC filings.

Yet with success comes imitators, like the KFC project mentioned above. There are also pizzerias that think they can do for the slice what Chipotle did for the burrito, as well as new IPOs such as Zoe's Kitchen , which is adding a Mediterranean flair. The fast-casual segment is getting crowded, and perhaps that's partially to blame for Panera stumbling in the last quarter. Earnings fell 3% year over year and missed analyst expectations by a penny per share. Revenue of $589 million was down more than 7% from 2013's second quarter and missed by a wide mark Wall Street's forecast of $640 million.

This possible dilution in the fast-casual space from a growing number of players may just mean that fast-fine restaurants like Fresh to Order could be the next growth spot. Unlike fast food, though, fine dining isn't a lingering wound.

According to the industry watchers at NPD Group, fine-dining establishments have recorded some of the strongest traffic gains in the restaurant industry, rising 4%for the 12-month period ending in May compared to the year-ago period. That's better than the midscale eateries and casual-dining chains, which saw traffic fall 2% and 3%, respectively. Quick-serve was essentially flat, but that's only because of the strength of fast casual, as fast food remains on the decline.

Source: NPD Group.

What may really set Fresh to Order apart is the lack of customers having to pay a gratuity at the restaurants. Maybe you're not getting white-glove service, but you're getting quality healthy food, relatively cheap and relatively fast, with better service than you'd find at a fast-casual chain.

Maybe that does make it just a glorified Chipotle or Panera Bread, but if upstarts like F2O are growing and grabbing share, this could be the next growth opportunity in the restaurant industry that will force other fine-dining chains to move into fast-fine dining as well.

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The article Fine Dining Is Finally Getting a Casual Makeover originally appeared on

Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bread, and Zoe's Kitchen. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days . We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy .

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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