The fast food of the future: exploring the latest trends in fast-casual dining

The fast food of the future: exploring the latest trends in fast-casual dining

By
Louise Burfitt
December 7, 2020

There’s no doubt about it: fast food is a mammoth industry. Rare is the person in Europe or the US who hasn’t grabbed a burger on the go or pulled into a drive-thru lane for a quick carton of French fries. Fast food’s appeal spans age, incomes, classes, ethnicities and tastes.

Worldwide, the fast food industry generates annual revenue of over $570 billion – for scale, that’s about $30 billion more than Belgium's GDP. In the US, more than 50 million Americans eat at a casual dining restaurant every day. And in Europe, the fast-casual dining market is expected to hit revenues of $17 billion by 2024.

But fast food is changing. Evolving dining habits accelerated by the coronavirus and new digital innovations are expected to upend the market as we know it - in fact, they already are. So what does the fast food restaurant of the future look like?

What is fast food?

Fast food, also known as fast-casual dining, is defined as easily prepared food served in cafés or restaurants, either as a speedy dine-in meal or takeaway food. Fast-casual dining restaurants include quick-service restaurants (QSRs) - think McDonald’s, Burger King and the like - and fast-casual establishments like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Five Guys. Both fast food and fast-casual outlets do not offer table service, preparation is minimal and a meal generally comes in at under $10 (€8). Together, QSRs and fast-casual restaurants account for more than 50% of sales in the restaurant sector as a whole.

Trend drivers: technology, social distancing & changing consumer preferences

The fast food restaurants of the future are going to look pretty different to your average McDonald’s as it was in 2010. Tomorrow’s fast food establishments will be reliant on digital technology and will centre the drive-thru lane. The sweeping changes to consumer behaviour and restaurants profits triggered by the coronavirus pandemic have made this shift all the more pressing.
Social distancing restrictions have meant that in-person dining was off the table for most of this year. Fast food restaurants, like other eateries, have had to adapt. With an established drive-thru lane and a model centred around takeout food, fast-casual dining is perhaps better suited than many spheres to adapt. And it has done, quickly: most fast food establishments have been promoting and upgrading the drive-thru experience. Since the start of the pandemic, 70 percent of McDonald’s sales have taken place in the drive-thru area. Likewise, many retailers have concentrated their efforts on reduced-contact options - like curbside pickup, ordering through apps and self-service kiosks. The off-premise model is likely to become dominant, as it’s easier to maintain and cheaper to run, even in a future where social distancing is no longer necessary.

The shift to no-contact models has elevated the use of technology in fast-food outlets. As well as allowing brands to adapt for social distancing, restaurant tech - whether self-service kiosks or ordering in-app - make for a more efficient customer experience. And the restaurants themselves benefit too, with opportunities to drive brand loyalty via digital channels and collect data about the customers using their apps. More information on those buying your products means more chances to track their behaviour, improve their experience and drive sales.

The image of fast food is also undergoing a revamp. Consumers desire food options that cater to a wider range of diets: think vegan, think more nutritious options. Equally, fast food businesses are trying to update the image of their product, working on overturning the assumption that fast food has to be unhealthy or low-quality. Established players are introducing more healthful and/or plant-based menu items and newer entrants - like Ra Bowls - are structuring their entire business model around offering a nutritious (often vegan) version of fast food that catches the eye of millennials.

Exploring the trend: meal kits, technology and healthy vegan options

The closure of dine-in restaurants this year meant fast food outlets needed to get creative, fast. Many started offering at-home meal kits for hungry consumers to enjoy on their sofas. Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons launched decorate-your-own-donuts kits at the height of the pandemic while Taco Bell started selling make-your-own taco packages with all the trimmings. For Pizza Pilgrims, a UK-based pizza chain, the lockdowns offered an unexpected opportunity to relaunch a business idea that had previously fallen flat. In 2014, the business’ owners debuted ‘Pizza in the Post’ but customers didn’t bite. With everyone stuck at home in 2020, the founders relaunched the concept, which was an overnight success. They now sell over 1,000 frying pan pizza kits a day and expect the boom to continue post-pandemic. Meal kits offer restaurants a chance to diversify, find new customers outside of their geographic area and new revenue streams.

The coronavirus crisis has also accelerated the shift to new technology in fast food outlets. Ghost kitchens, mobile ordering, robot servers – you name it, the future is nigh. Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts plan to open as many ‘future-ready’ outlets as they can as soon as possible. This will involve upgrading the drive-thru lane and adopting technological solutions like mobile pick-up models and electronic bill payment via a smartphone. For example, Pay My Bill by Firejacks allows diners to pay for their items electronically through a compatible mobile device while McDonald’s has already reduced the average drive-thru time by 30 seconds since 2018 by deploying AI.

McDonald’s also owns Dynamic Yield technology, which tweaks a digital drive-thru or kiosk menu according to the time of day, menu item popularity or the weather. It is already being used in 12,000 locations in North America. In the not-too-distant future, the underlying algorithm will be able to personalise menus in ever greater detail, basing recommendations for individual customers on their past purchases. Meanwhile, Ordering kiosks may also be replaced by AI-enabled voice command service stations in the near future. Expect other big players in the fast-casual arena to follow suit.

Some are doing away with the dining room altogether. Chipotle Mexican Grill opened its first fully digital restaurant in November 2020, with no dining room or ordering queues. Customers must order in advance on the app or website. McDonald’s and KFC are all experimenting with new store concepts without dining areas while Burger King and Shake Shack are among the brands that plan to implement drive-thru lanes reserved for delivery drivers and takeaway orders placed online.

Technology aside, players on the field are listening to consumers - who want more varied, healthier options on the go. Sweetgreen and Tossed that sell fresh, choose-your-own salads appeal to millennials on the go, who are less likely to be convinced by the less than green images of stalwarts like McDonald’s and Wendy’s. As a result, plant-based options are also becoming a mainstay on fast food menus in light of consumer demand. McDonald’s plans to introduce its own vegan burger, the McPlant, in 2021. Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts are already selling their own plant-based options. And it’s worth remembering vegan consumers don’t necessarily want healthy options only. Startups like Ra Bowls and chains like Leon and Sweetgreen cater to health-conscious, veggie-loving customers but there’s also a sweet spot out there for vegan ‘junk food’ that’s being filled by fast food disruptors like Amsterdam’s Vegan Junk Food Bar and Chickenish, London’s 100% vegan fried ‘chicken’ shop or Mcdonalds-esque vegan burger chains Halo Burger and The Vurger Co.

Case Studies: Taco Bell & Vegan Junk Food Bar  

Taco Bell is a storied American fast food chain that prides itself on adapting to changing consumer behaviour, making the brand a great example of how fast food outlets of the future might look. This summer it launched its new Go Mobile design which marries innovative tech and a customer-first approach. Customers order ahead through the chain’s mobile app and, upon arrival, are suggested the quickest route for collection - either curbside pick-up, drive-thru or a priority option in a second drive-thru lane. The chain was also the first QSR to roll out the system of ordering and paying ahead of pickup via a digital app, creating a seamless experience for customers who don’t fancy standing in line. The brand says the average time spent in a drive-thru has been reduced by more than 15 seconds since early 2020.

From an industry old timer to a fresh startup: Vegan Junk Food Bar (VJFB), headquartered in the Netherlands, is a plant-based fast food business bringing vegan fast food options to the masses. The first VJFB opened its doors in 2017 in Amsterdam, swiftly followed by four more restaurants throughout Holland. The company aims to provide junk food to vegans (and flexitarians) that is sustainable, ethical and delicious. The brand has targeted millennials with its Instagrammable dishes and sustainable packaging, and now plans to expand globally - thanks to growing demand for vegan casual dining in many markets.

What’s next for fast food?

COVID-19 has forced fast food restaurants to adapt and implement technological innovations long before their planned execution date, and many companies have realised the value of minimum viable products.

Digital innovations that improve the customer experience, like Taco Bell’s Go Mobile concept, also benefit brands by providing customer data that can lead to deeper consumer insights and, ultimately, increased brand loyalty and higher sales figures. The most successful brands will keep innovating digitally long after the pandemic has passed - technology and AI are here to stay.

Trends around plant-based foods and healthier options are also likely to continue, as digitally native, climate-preserving Gen Z comes of age and exerts greater spending power.  

The fast food industry is in a state of flux, and COVID-19 has only accelerated the shift. In adopting new technology and reacting to the latest trends, fast food businesses must bear in mind the need to provide and improve what attracts people to fast food in the first place: easy and efficient access to affordable food on the move.

The 30-second pitch: The future of fast food

🍔 What

  • Fast food is changing, fast: both established brands and brand-new startups are innovating with technology, plant-based menu items and meal kits.


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes that were already in the pipeline for fast food. Social distancing has made no-contact technology and drive-thru innovation a necessity, with this likely to continue long after the pandemic has passed.


🍴 How

  • DIY meal kits and improved takeaway menus
  • Plant-based and/or health-conscious fast food
  • Restaurant tech (mobile apps, electronic payments, ghost kitchens and more)
  • Upgraded drive-thru lanes and fast food premises without dining rooms


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Established fast food brands are listening and learning from consumer feedback with increased variety of menu items, plant-based options and some healthy items while startups are being founded with these values at their core. This will attract a wider range of customers and have health and sustainability benefits on a larger scale.
  • Meal kits offer restaurants a chance to diversify, find new customers outside of their geographic area and new revenue streams.
  • Technology makes for a more seamless and efficient consumer experience and also provides data insights for brands.


👎 The bad

  • Consumers increasingly want to see healthier options on fast food menus, as well as options that cater to a variety of diets, so companies that specialise in one meaty junk food (like chicken wing shops) may miss out on new customers if they don’t start to diversify.
  • Increased use of AI, robot waiters and deliveries, and ghost kitchens may reduce jobs available in the fast food industry.


💡 The bottom line

  • Fast food is in flux, and the pandemic has only hastened the process. In adopting new technology and reacting to the latest trends, fast food businesses must continue to elevate consumer needs above all: easy and efficient access to affordable food.
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There’s no doubt about it: fast food is a mammoth industry. Rare is the person in Europe or the US who hasn’t grabbed a burger on the go or pulled into a drive-thru lane for a quick carton of French fries. Fast food’s appeal spans age, incomes, classes, ethnicities and tastes.

Worldwide, the fast food industry generates annual revenue of over $570 billion – for scale, that’s about $30 billion more than Belgium's GDP. In the US, more than 50 million Americans eat at a casual dining restaurant every day. And in Europe, the fast-casual dining market is expected to hit revenues of $17 billion by 2024.

But fast food is changing. Evolving dining habits accelerated by the coronavirus and new digital innovations are expected to upend the market as we know it - in fact, they already are. So what does the fast food restaurant of the future look like?

What is fast food?

Fast food, also known as fast-casual dining, is defined as easily prepared food served in cafés or restaurants, either as a speedy dine-in meal or takeaway food. Fast-casual dining restaurants include quick-service restaurants (QSRs) - think McDonald’s, Burger King and the like - and fast-casual establishments like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Five Guys. Both fast food and fast-casual outlets do not offer table service, preparation is minimal and a meal generally comes in at under $10 (€8). Together, QSRs and fast-casual restaurants account for more than 50% of sales in the restaurant sector as a whole.

Trend drivers: technology, social distancing & changing consumer preferences

The fast food restaurants of the future are going to look pretty different to your average McDonald’s as it was in 2010. Tomorrow’s fast food establishments will be reliant on digital technology and will centre the drive-thru lane. The sweeping changes to consumer behaviour and restaurants profits triggered by the coronavirus pandemic have made this shift all the more pressing.
Social distancing restrictions have meant that in-person dining was off the table for most of this year. Fast food restaurants, like other eateries, have had to adapt. With an established drive-thru lane and a model centred around takeout food, fast-casual dining is perhaps better suited than many spheres to adapt. And it has done, quickly: most fast food establishments have been promoting and upgrading the drive-thru experience. Since the start of the pandemic, 70 percent of McDonald’s sales have taken place in the drive-thru area. Likewise, many retailers have concentrated their efforts on reduced-contact options - like curbside pickup, ordering through apps and self-service kiosks. The off-premise model is likely to become dominant, as it’s easier to maintain and cheaper to run, even in a future where social distancing is no longer necessary.

The shift to no-contact models has elevated the use of technology in fast-food outlets. As well as allowing brands to adapt for social distancing, restaurant tech - whether self-service kiosks or ordering in-app - make for a more efficient customer experience. And the restaurants themselves benefit too, with opportunities to drive brand loyalty via digital channels and collect data about the customers using their apps. More information on those buying your products means more chances to track their behaviour, improve their experience and drive sales.

The image of fast food is also undergoing a revamp. Consumers desire food options that cater to a wider range of diets: think vegan, think more nutritious options. Equally, fast food businesses are trying to update the image of their product, working on overturning the assumption that fast food has to be unhealthy or low-quality. Established players are introducing more healthful and/or plant-based menu items and newer entrants - like Ra Bowls - are structuring their entire business model around offering a nutritious (often vegan) version of fast food that catches the eye of millennials.

Exploring the trend: meal kits, technology and healthy vegan options

The closure of dine-in restaurants this year meant fast food outlets needed to get creative, fast. Many started offering at-home meal kits for hungry consumers to enjoy on their sofas. Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons launched decorate-your-own-donuts kits at the height of the pandemic while Taco Bell started selling make-your-own taco packages with all the trimmings. For Pizza Pilgrims, a UK-based pizza chain, the lockdowns offered an unexpected opportunity to relaunch a business idea that had previously fallen flat. In 2014, the business’ owners debuted ‘Pizza in the Post’ but customers didn’t bite. With everyone stuck at home in 2020, the founders relaunched the concept, which was an overnight success. They now sell over 1,000 frying pan pizza kits a day and expect the boom to continue post-pandemic. Meal kits offer restaurants a chance to diversify, find new customers outside of their geographic area and new revenue streams.

The coronavirus crisis has also accelerated the shift to new technology in fast food outlets. Ghost kitchens, mobile ordering, robot servers – you name it, the future is nigh. Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts plan to open as many ‘future-ready’ outlets as they can as soon as possible. This will involve upgrading the drive-thru lane and adopting technological solutions like mobile pick-up models and electronic bill payment via a smartphone. For example, Pay My Bill by Firejacks allows diners to pay for their items electronically through a compatible mobile device while McDonald’s has already reduced the average drive-thru time by 30 seconds since 2018 by deploying AI.

McDonald’s also owns Dynamic Yield technology, which tweaks a digital drive-thru or kiosk menu according to the time of day, menu item popularity or the weather. It is already being used in 12,000 locations in North America. In the not-too-distant future, the underlying algorithm will be able to personalise menus in ever greater detail, basing recommendations for individual customers on their past purchases. Meanwhile, Ordering kiosks may also be replaced by AI-enabled voice command service stations in the near future. Expect other big players in the fast-casual arena to follow suit.

Some are doing away with the dining room altogether. Chipotle Mexican Grill opened its first fully digital restaurant in November 2020, with no dining room or ordering queues. Customers must order in advance on the app or website. McDonald’s and KFC are all experimenting with new store concepts without dining areas while Burger King and Shake Shack are among the brands that plan to implement drive-thru lanes reserved for delivery drivers and takeaway orders placed online.

Technology aside, players on the field are listening to consumers - who want more varied, healthier options on the go. Sweetgreen and Tossed that sell fresh, choose-your-own salads appeal to millennials on the go, who are less likely to be convinced by the less than green images of stalwarts like McDonald’s and Wendy’s. As a result, plant-based options are also becoming a mainstay on fast food menus in light of consumer demand. McDonald’s plans to introduce its own vegan burger, the McPlant, in 2021. Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts are already selling their own plant-based options. And it’s worth remembering vegan consumers don’t necessarily want healthy options only. Startups like Ra Bowls and chains like Leon and Sweetgreen cater to health-conscious, veggie-loving customers but there’s also a sweet spot out there for vegan ‘junk food’ that’s being filled by fast food disruptors like Amsterdam’s Vegan Junk Food Bar and Chickenish, London’s 100% vegan fried ‘chicken’ shop or Mcdonalds-esque vegan burger chains Halo Burger and The Vurger Co.

Case Studies: Taco Bell & Vegan Junk Food Bar  

Taco Bell is a storied American fast food chain that prides itself on adapting to changing consumer behaviour, making the brand a great example of how fast food outlets of the future might look. This summer it launched its new Go Mobile design which marries innovative tech and a customer-first approach. Customers order ahead through the chain’s mobile app and, upon arrival, are suggested the quickest route for collection - either curbside pick-up, drive-thru or a priority option in a second drive-thru lane. The chain was also the first QSR to roll out the system of ordering and paying ahead of pickup via a digital app, creating a seamless experience for customers who don’t fancy standing in line. The brand says the average time spent in a drive-thru has been reduced by more than 15 seconds since early 2020.

From an industry old timer to a fresh startup: Vegan Junk Food Bar (VJFB), headquartered in the Netherlands, is a plant-based fast food business bringing vegan fast food options to the masses. The first VJFB opened its doors in 2017 in Amsterdam, swiftly followed by four more restaurants throughout Holland. The company aims to provide junk food to vegans (and flexitarians) that is sustainable, ethical and delicious. The brand has targeted millennials with its Instagrammable dishes and sustainable packaging, and now plans to expand globally - thanks to growing demand for vegan casual dining in many markets.

What’s next for fast food?

COVID-19 has forced fast food restaurants to adapt and implement technological innovations long before their planned execution date, and many companies have realised the value of minimum viable products.

Digital innovations that improve the customer experience, like Taco Bell’s Go Mobile concept, also benefit brands by providing customer data that can lead to deeper consumer insights and, ultimately, increased brand loyalty and higher sales figures. The most successful brands will keep innovating digitally long after the pandemic has passed - technology and AI are here to stay.

Trends around plant-based foods and healthier options are also likely to continue, as digitally native, climate-preserving Gen Z comes of age and exerts greater spending power.  

The fast food industry is in a state of flux, and COVID-19 has only accelerated the shift. In adopting new technology and reacting to the latest trends, fast food businesses must bear in mind the need to provide and improve what attracts people to fast food in the first place: easy and efficient access to affordable food on the move.

The 30-second pitch: The future of fast food

🍔 What

  • Fast food is changing, fast: both established brands and brand-new startups are innovating with technology, plant-based menu items and meal kits.


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes that were already in the pipeline for fast food. Social distancing has made no-contact technology and drive-thru innovation a necessity, with this likely to continue long after the pandemic has passed.


🍴 How

  • DIY meal kits and improved takeaway menus
  • Plant-based and/or health-conscious fast food
  • Restaurant tech (mobile apps, electronic payments, ghost kitchens and more)
  • Upgraded drive-thru lanes and fast food premises without dining rooms


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Established fast food brands are listening and learning from consumer feedback with increased variety of menu items, plant-based options and some healthy items while startups are being founded with these values at their core. This will attract a wider range of customers and have health and sustainability benefits on a larger scale.
  • Meal kits offer restaurants a chance to diversify, find new customers outside of their geographic area and new revenue streams.
  • Technology makes for a more seamless and efficient consumer experience and also provides data insights for brands.


👎 The bad

  • Consumers increasingly want to see healthier options on fast food menus, as well as options that cater to a variety of diets, so companies that specialise in one meaty junk food (like chicken wing shops) may miss out on new customers if they don’t start to diversify.
  • Increased use of AI, robot waiters and deliveries, and ghost kitchens may reduce jobs available in the fast food industry.


💡 The bottom line

  • Fast food is in flux, and the pandemic has only hastened the process. In adopting new technology and reacting to the latest trends, fast food businesses must continue to elevate consumer needs above all: easy and efficient access to affordable food.

There’s no doubt about it: fast food is a mammoth industry. Rare is the person in Europe or the US who hasn’t grabbed a burger on the go or pulled into a drive-thru lane for a quick carton of French fries. Fast food’s appeal spans age, incomes, classes, ethnicities and tastes.

Worldwide, the fast food industry generates annual revenue of over $570 billion – for scale, that’s about $30 billion more than Belgium's GDP. In the US, more than 50 million Americans eat at a casual dining restaurant every day. And in Europe, the fast-casual dining market is expected to hit revenues of $17 billion by 2024.

But fast food is changing. Evolving dining habits accelerated by the coronavirus and new digital innovations are expected to upend the market as we know it - in fact, they already are. So what does the fast food restaurant of the future look like?

What is fast food?

Fast food, also known as fast-casual dining, is defined as easily prepared food served in cafés or restaurants, either as a speedy dine-in meal or takeaway food. Fast-casual dining restaurants include quick-service restaurants (QSRs) - think McDonald’s, Burger King and the like - and fast-casual establishments like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Five Guys. Both fast food and fast-casual outlets do not offer table service, preparation is minimal and a meal generally comes in at under $10 (€8). Together, QSRs and fast-casual restaurants account for more than 50% of sales in the restaurant sector as a whole.

Trend drivers: technology, social distancing & changing consumer preferences

The fast food restaurants of the future are going to look pretty different to your average McDonald’s as it was in 2010. Tomorrow’s fast food establishments will be reliant on digital technology and will centre the drive-thru lane. The sweeping changes to consumer behaviour and restaurants profits triggered by the coronavirus pandemic have made this shift all the more pressing.
Social distancing restrictions have meant that in-person dining was off the table for most of this year. Fast food restaurants, like other eateries, have had to adapt. With an established drive-thru lane and a model centred around takeout food, fast-casual dining is perhaps better suited than many spheres to adapt. And it has done, quickly: most fast food establishments have been promoting and upgrading the drive-thru experience. Since the start of the pandemic, 70 percent of McDonald’s sales have taken place in the drive-thru area. Likewise, many retailers have concentrated their efforts on reduced-contact options - like curbside pickup, ordering through apps and self-service kiosks. The off-premise model is likely to become dominant, as it’s easier to maintain and cheaper to run, even in a future where social distancing is no longer necessary.

The shift to no-contact models has elevated the use of technology in fast-food outlets. As well as allowing brands to adapt for social distancing, restaurant tech - whether self-service kiosks or ordering in-app - make for a more efficient customer experience. And the restaurants themselves benefit too, with opportunities to drive brand loyalty via digital channels and collect data about the customers using their apps. More information on those buying your products means more chances to track their behaviour, improve their experience and drive sales.

The image of fast food is also undergoing a revamp. Consumers desire food options that cater to a wider range of diets: think vegan, think more nutritious options. Equally, fast food businesses are trying to update the image of their product, working on overturning the assumption that fast food has to be unhealthy or low-quality. Established players are introducing more healthful and/or plant-based menu items and newer entrants - like Ra Bowls - are structuring their entire business model around offering a nutritious (often vegan) version of fast food that catches the eye of millennials.

Exploring the trend: meal kits, technology and healthy vegan options

The closure of dine-in restaurants this year meant fast food outlets needed to get creative, fast. Many started offering at-home meal kits for hungry consumers to enjoy on their sofas. Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons launched decorate-your-own-donuts kits at the height of the pandemic while Taco Bell started selling make-your-own taco packages with all the trimmings. For Pizza Pilgrims, a UK-based pizza chain, the lockdowns offered an unexpected opportunity to relaunch a business idea that had previously fallen flat. In 2014, the business’ owners debuted ‘Pizza in the Post’ but customers didn’t bite. With everyone stuck at home in 2020, the founders relaunched the concept, which was an overnight success. They now sell over 1,000 frying pan pizza kits a day and expect the boom to continue post-pandemic. Meal kits offer restaurants a chance to diversify, find new customers outside of their geographic area and new revenue streams.

The coronavirus crisis has also accelerated the shift to new technology in fast food outlets. Ghost kitchens, mobile ordering, robot servers – you name it, the future is nigh. Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts plan to open as many ‘future-ready’ outlets as they can as soon as possible. This will involve upgrading the drive-thru lane and adopting technological solutions like mobile pick-up models and electronic bill payment via a smartphone. For example, Pay My Bill by Firejacks allows diners to pay for their items electronically through a compatible mobile device while McDonald’s has already reduced the average drive-thru time by 30 seconds since 2018 by deploying AI.

McDonald’s also owns Dynamic Yield technology, which tweaks a digital drive-thru or kiosk menu according to the time of day, menu item popularity or the weather. It is already being used in 12,000 locations in North America. In the not-too-distant future, the underlying algorithm will be able to personalise menus in ever greater detail, basing recommendations for individual customers on their past purchases. Meanwhile, Ordering kiosks may also be replaced by AI-enabled voice command service stations in the near future. Expect other big players in the fast-casual arena to follow suit.

Some are doing away with the dining room altogether. Chipotle Mexican Grill opened its first fully digital restaurant in November 2020, with no dining room or ordering queues. Customers must order in advance on the app or website. McDonald’s and KFC are all experimenting with new store concepts without dining areas while Burger King and Shake Shack are among the brands that plan to implement drive-thru lanes reserved for delivery drivers and takeaway orders placed online.

Technology aside, players on the field are listening to consumers - who want more varied, healthier options on the go. Sweetgreen and Tossed that sell fresh, choose-your-own salads appeal to millennials on the go, who are less likely to be convinced by the less than green images of stalwarts like McDonald’s and Wendy’s. As a result, plant-based options are also becoming a mainstay on fast food menus in light of consumer demand. McDonald’s plans to introduce its own vegan burger, the McPlant, in 2021. Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts are already selling their own plant-based options. And it’s worth remembering vegan consumers don’t necessarily want healthy options only. Startups like Ra Bowls and chains like Leon and Sweetgreen cater to health-conscious, veggie-loving customers but there’s also a sweet spot out there for vegan ‘junk food’ that’s being filled by fast food disruptors like Amsterdam’s Vegan Junk Food Bar and Chickenish, London’s 100% vegan fried ‘chicken’ shop or Mcdonalds-esque vegan burger chains Halo Burger and The Vurger Co.

Case Studies: Taco Bell & Vegan Junk Food Bar  

Taco Bell is a storied American fast food chain that prides itself on adapting to changing consumer behaviour, making the brand a great example of how fast food outlets of the future might look. This summer it launched its new Go Mobile design which marries innovative tech and a customer-first approach. Customers order ahead through the chain’s mobile app and, upon arrival, are suggested the quickest route for collection - either curbside pick-up, drive-thru or a priority option in a second drive-thru lane. The chain was also the first QSR to roll out the system of ordering and paying ahead of pickup via a digital app, creating a seamless experience for customers who don’t fancy standing in line. The brand says the average time spent in a drive-thru has been reduced by more than 15 seconds since early 2020.

From an industry old timer to a fresh startup: Vegan Junk Food Bar (VJFB), headquartered in the Netherlands, is a plant-based fast food business bringing vegan fast food options to the masses. The first VJFB opened its doors in 2017 in Amsterdam, swiftly followed by four more restaurants throughout Holland. The company aims to provide junk food to vegans (and flexitarians) that is sustainable, ethical and delicious. The brand has targeted millennials with its Instagrammable dishes and sustainable packaging, and now plans to expand globally - thanks to growing demand for vegan casual dining in many markets.

What’s next for fast food?

COVID-19 has forced fast food restaurants to adapt and implement technological innovations long before their planned execution date, and many companies have realised the value of minimum viable products.

Digital innovations that improve the customer experience, like Taco Bell’s Go Mobile concept, also benefit brands by providing customer data that can lead to deeper consumer insights and, ultimately, increased brand loyalty and higher sales figures. The most successful brands will keep innovating digitally long after the pandemic has passed - technology and AI are here to stay.

Trends around plant-based foods and healthier options are also likely to continue, as digitally native, climate-preserving Gen Z comes of age and exerts greater spending power.  

The fast food industry is in a state of flux, and COVID-19 has only accelerated the shift. In adopting new technology and reacting to the latest trends, fast food businesses must bear in mind the need to provide and improve what attracts people to fast food in the first place: easy and efficient access to affordable food on the move.

The 30-second pitch: The future of fast food

🍔 What

  • Fast food is changing, fast: both established brands and brand-new startups are innovating with technology, plant-based menu items and meal kits.


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes that were already in the pipeline for fast food. Social distancing has made no-contact technology and drive-thru innovation a necessity, with this likely to continue long after the pandemic has passed.


🍴 How

  • DIY meal kits and improved takeaway menus
  • Plant-based and/or health-conscious fast food
  • Restaurant tech (mobile apps, electronic payments, ghost kitchens and more)
  • Upgraded drive-thru lanes and fast food premises without dining rooms


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Established fast food brands are listening and learning from consumer feedback with increased variety of menu items, plant-based options and some healthy items while startups are being founded with these values at their core. This will attract a wider range of customers and have health and sustainability benefits on a larger scale.
  • Meal kits offer restaurants a chance to diversify, find new customers outside of their geographic area and new revenue streams.
  • Technology makes for a more seamless and efficient consumer experience and also provides data insights for brands.


👎 The bad

  • Consumers increasingly want to see healthier options on fast food menus, as well as options that cater to a variety of diets, so companies that specialise in one meaty junk food (like chicken wing shops) may miss out on new customers if they don’t start to diversify.
  • Increased use of AI, robot waiters and deliveries, and ghost kitchens may reduce jobs available in the fast food industry.


💡 The bottom line

  • Fast food is in flux, and the pandemic has only hastened the process. In adopting new technology and reacting to the latest trends, fast food businesses must continue to elevate consumer needs above all: easy and efficient access to affordable food.

There’s no doubt about it: fast food is a mammoth industry. Rare is the person in Europe or the US who hasn’t grabbed a burger on the go or pulled into a drive-thru lane for a quick carton of French fries. Fast food’s appeal spans age, incomes, classes, ethnicities and tastes.

Worldwide, the fast food industry generates annual revenue of over $570 billion – for scale, that’s about $30 billion more than Belgium's GDP. In the US, more than 50 million Americans eat at a casual dining restaurant every day. And in Europe, the fast-casual dining market is expected to hit revenues of $17 billion by 2024.

But fast food is changing. Evolving dining habits accelerated by the coronavirus and new digital innovations are expected to upend the market as we know it - in fact, they already are. So what does the fast food restaurant of the future look like?

What is fast food?

Fast food, also known as fast-casual dining, is defined as easily prepared food served in cafés or restaurants, either as a speedy dine-in meal or takeaway food. Fast-casual dining restaurants include quick-service restaurants (QSRs) - think McDonald’s, Burger King and the like - and fast-casual establishments like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Five Guys. Both fast food and fast-casual outlets do not offer table service, preparation is minimal and a meal generally comes in at under $10 (€8). Together, QSRs and fast-casual restaurants account for more than 50% of sales in the restaurant sector as a whole.

Trend drivers: technology, social distancing & changing consumer preferences

The fast food restaurants of the future are going to look pretty different to your average McDonald’s as it was in 2010. Tomorrow’s fast food establishments will be reliant on digital technology and will centre the drive-thru lane. The sweeping changes to consumer behaviour and restaurants profits triggered by the coronavirus pandemic have made this shift all the more pressing.
Social distancing restrictions have meant that in-person dining was off the table for most of this year. Fast food restaurants, like other eateries, have had to adapt. With an established drive-thru lane and a model centred around takeout food, fast-casual dining is perhaps better suited than many spheres to adapt. And it has done, quickly: most fast food establishments have been promoting and upgrading the drive-thru experience. Since the start of the pandemic, 70 percent of McDonald’s sales have taken place in the drive-thru area. Likewise, many retailers have concentrated their efforts on reduced-contact options - like curbside pickup, ordering through apps and self-service kiosks. The off-premise model is likely to become dominant, as it’s easier to maintain and cheaper to run, even in a future where social distancing is no longer necessary.

The shift to no-contact models has elevated the use of technology in fast-food outlets. As well as allowing brands to adapt for social distancing, restaurant tech - whether self-service kiosks or ordering in-app - make for a more efficient customer experience. And the restaurants themselves benefit too, with opportunities to drive brand loyalty via digital channels and collect data about the customers using their apps. More information on those buying your products means more chances to track their behaviour, improve their experience and drive sales.

The image of fast food is also undergoing a revamp. Consumers desire food options that cater to a wider range of diets: think vegan, think more nutritious options. Equally, fast food businesses are trying to update the image of their product, working on overturning the assumption that fast food has to be unhealthy or low-quality. Established players are introducing more healthful and/or plant-based menu items and newer entrants - like Ra Bowls - are structuring their entire business model around offering a nutritious (often vegan) version of fast food that catches the eye of millennials.

Exploring the trend: meal kits, technology and healthy vegan options

The closure of dine-in restaurants this year meant fast food outlets needed to get creative, fast. Many started offering at-home meal kits for hungry consumers to enjoy on their sofas. Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons launched decorate-your-own-donuts kits at the height of the pandemic while Taco Bell started selling make-your-own taco packages with all the trimmings. For Pizza Pilgrims, a UK-based pizza chain, the lockdowns offered an unexpected opportunity to relaunch a business idea that had previously fallen flat. In 2014, the business’ owners debuted ‘Pizza in the Post’ but customers didn’t bite. With everyone stuck at home in 2020, the founders relaunched the concept, which was an overnight success. They now sell over 1,000 frying pan pizza kits a day and expect the boom to continue post-pandemic. Meal kits offer restaurants a chance to diversify, find new customers outside of their geographic area and new revenue streams.

The coronavirus crisis has also accelerated the shift to new technology in fast food outlets. Ghost kitchens, mobile ordering, robot servers – you name it, the future is nigh. Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts plan to open as many ‘future-ready’ outlets as they can as soon as possible. This will involve upgrading the drive-thru lane and adopting technological solutions like mobile pick-up models and electronic bill payment via a smartphone. For example, Pay My Bill by Firejacks allows diners to pay for their items electronically through a compatible mobile device while McDonald’s has already reduced the average drive-thru time by 30 seconds since 2018 by deploying AI.

McDonald’s also owns Dynamic Yield technology, which tweaks a digital drive-thru or kiosk menu according to the time of day, menu item popularity or the weather. It is already being used in 12,000 locations in North America. In the not-too-distant future, the underlying algorithm will be able to personalise menus in ever greater detail, basing recommendations for individual customers on their past purchases. Meanwhile, Ordering kiosks may also be replaced by AI-enabled voice command service stations in the near future. Expect other big players in the fast-casual arena to follow suit.

Some are doing away with the dining room altogether. Chipotle Mexican Grill opened its first fully digital restaurant in November 2020, with no dining room or ordering queues. Customers must order in advance on the app or website. McDonald’s and KFC are all experimenting with new store concepts without dining areas while Burger King and Shake Shack are among the brands that plan to implement drive-thru lanes reserved for delivery drivers and takeaway orders placed online.

Technology aside, players on the field are listening to consumers - who want more varied, healthier options on the go. Sweetgreen and Tossed that sell fresh, choose-your-own salads appeal to millennials on the go, who are less likely to be convinced by the less than green images of stalwarts like McDonald’s and Wendy’s. As a result, plant-based options are also becoming a mainstay on fast food menus in light of consumer demand. McDonald’s plans to introduce its own vegan burger, the McPlant, in 2021. Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts are already selling their own plant-based options. And it’s worth remembering vegan consumers don’t necessarily want healthy options only. Startups like Ra Bowls and chains like Leon and Sweetgreen cater to health-conscious, veggie-loving customers but there’s also a sweet spot out there for vegan ‘junk food’ that’s being filled by fast food disruptors like Amsterdam’s Vegan Junk Food Bar and Chickenish, London’s 100% vegan fried ‘chicken’ shop or Mcdonalds-esque vegan burger chains Halo Burger and The Vurger Co.

Case Studies: Taco Bell & Vegan Junk Food Bar  

Taco Bell is a storied American fast food chain that prides itself on adapting to changing consumer behaviour, making the brand a great example of how fast food outlets of the future might look. This summer it launched its new Go Mobile design which marries innovative tech and a customer-first approach. Customers order ahead through the chain’s mobile app and, upon arrival, are suggested the quickest route for collection - either curbside pick-up, drive-thru or a priority option in a second drive-thru lane. The chain was also the first QSR to roll out the system of ordering and paying ahead of pickup via a digital app, creating a seamless experience for customers who don’t fancy standing in line. The brand says the average time spent in a drive-thru has been reduced by more than 15 seconds since early 2020.

From an industry old timer to a fresh startup: Vegan Junk Food Bar (VJFB), headquartered in the Netherlands, is a plant-based fast food business bringing vegan fast food options to the masses. The first VJFB opened its doors in 2017 in Amsterdam, swiftly followed by four more restaurants throughout Holland. The company aims to provide junk food to vegans (and flexitarians) that is sustainable, ethical and delicious. The brand has targeted millennials with its Instagrammable dishes and sustainable packaging, and now plans to expand globally - thanks to growing demand for vegan casual dining in many markets.

What’s next for fast food?

COVID-19 has forced fast food restaurants to adapt and implement technological innovations long before their planned execution date, and many companies have realised the value of minimum viable products.

Digital innovations that improve the customer experience, like Taco Bell’s Go Mobile concept, also benefit brands by providing customer data that can lead to deeper consumer insights and, ultimately, increased brand loyalty and higher sales figures. The most successful brands will keep innovating digitally long after the pandemic has passed - technology and AI are here to stay.

Trends around plant-based foods and healthier options are also likely to continue, as digitally native, climate-preserving Gen Z comes of age and exerts greater spending power.  

The fast food industry is in a state of flux, and COVID-19 has only accelerated the shift. In adopting new technology and reacting to the latest trends, fast food businesses must bear in mind the need to provide and improve what attracts people to fast food in the first place: easy and efficient access to affordable food on the move.

The 30-second pitch: The future of fast food

🍔 What

  • Fast food is changing, fast: both established brands and brand-new startups are innovating with technology, plant-based menu items and meal kits.


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes that were already in the pipeline for fast food. Social distancing has made no-contact technology and drive-thru innovation a necessity, with this likely to continue long after the pandemic has passed.


🍴 How

  • DIY meal kits and improved takeaway menus
  • Plant-based and/or health-conscious fast food
  • Restaurant tech (mobile apps, electronic payments, ghost kitchens and more)
  • Upgraded drive-thru lanes and fast food premises without dining rooms


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Established fast food brands are listening and learning from consumer feedback with increased variety of menu items, plant-based options and some healthy items while startups are being founded with these values at their core. This will attract a wider range of customers and have health and sustainability benefits on a larger scale.
  • Meal kits offer restaurants a chance to diversify, find new customers outside of their geographic area and new revenue streams.
  • Technology makes for a more seamless and efficient consumer experience and also provides data insights for brands.


👎 The bad

  • Consumers increasingly want to see healthier options on fast food menus, as well as options that cater to a variety of diets, so companies that specialise in one meaty junk food (like chicken wing shops) may miss out on new customers if they don’t start to diversify.
  • Increased use of AI, robot waiters and deliveries, and ghost kitchens may reduce jobs available in the fast food industry.


💡 The bottom line

  • Fast food is in flux, and the pandemic has only hastened the process. In adopting new technology and reacting to the latest trends, fast food businesses must continue to elevate consumer needs above all: easy and efficient access to affordable food.
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