Courtesy of William Brinson

According to customers, the burrito chain may have a perception problem. 

July 11, 2017

“Fast casual” has become the hottest concept in the restaurant world. Buoyed by millennials' love for speed, convenience and quality, even sit-down dining stalwarts like Hooters and Buffalo Wild Wings have recently announced plans to get into the fast casual space. But unlike the difference between fast food and full-service – which is pretty clearly delineated by table service – the difference between “fast food” and “fast casual” can be a bit more nuanced, taking into account more subjective concerns like quality. But fast casual also sets itself apart in price: charging more for supposedly higher quality food – meaning if customers aren’t appreciating this tradeoff, fast casual chains can run into a problem.

According to CNBC, this lack of a firm distinction as a “fast casual” restaurant could be one of Chipotle’s biggest ongoing issues.  Yes, the beleaguered burrito chain has had plenty of struggles in the past few years: everything from the much publicized health scares to its more recent payment system hack. But some analysts wonder whether the restaurant suffers from a more fundamental problem: customers don’t see it as a higher-end eating experience, in part because they don’t always offer a higher-end experience.

“I think Chipotle is much more fast food-like than casual dining, especially in urban locations where lots of people treat it as a grab-and-go option,” Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData, told CNBC. “The dining-in experience in many branches of Chipotle is far from inspiring and, in some locations, the ambiance and layout actively discourages people from eating in.” J.G. Collins, managing director of Stuyvesant Square Consultancy, agreed. “You order off of a steam table, carry a tray to your table and pay a high price, relatively, for doing so,” he wrote. “That's not terribly different from what you do in McDonald's, when you think about it, although McDonald's is a bargain by comparison.”

Granted, most people would probably consider the food at Chipotle to be of a higher quality than that of McDonald’s, but is it worth the additional cost when CNBC pegs the average fast food check at between $3 and $7 compared to the average Chipotle check of $11?

However, though it’s easy to say that Chipotle has possibly let its standards slip, the fast casual squeeze is happening from both sides. Fast food restaurants won’t necessarily just sit back and lose out to their pricier competition. Chains like McDonald’s have been actively trying to lure more customers with updated interiors and, somewhat even more confusingly, table service. Maybe the line between fast food, fast casual and even casual dining is simply going to be blurred into oblivion?