June 22


How to Define the “Casual Fast Food” Land Use Category

By Mike Spack

June 22, 2017

fast casual, fast food, high-turnover restaurant, ITE Trip Generation Manual 9th Edition, quality restaurant, traffic data, traffic generation, Trip Generation

By Bryant Ficek, PE, PTOE

“The phrase I know it when I see it” is a colloquial expression by which a speaker attempts to categorize an observable fact or event, although the category is subjective or lacks clearly defined parameters.” – Wikipedia

The current version of the Institute of Transportation’s (ITE) Trip Generation Manual, 9th Edition, provides the following land uses and descriptions for restaurants:

  • Quality Restaurant: high quality, full-service eating establishments with typical duration of stay of at least one hour; generally, do not serve breakfast and some do not serve lunch; often requests and sometimes requires reservations and is generally not part of a chain; patrons commonly wait to be seated, are served by a wait staff, order from menus, and pay for meals after they eat.
  • High-Turnover (Sit-Down) Restaurant: sit-down, full-service eating establishments with typical duration of stay of approximately one hour; moderately priced and frequently belongs to a restaurant chain; generally, serve lunch and dinner, but may also be open for breakfast and sometimes open 24 hours per day; typically do not take reservations; patrons commonly wait to be seated, are served by a wait staff, order from menus, and pay for meals after they eat.
  • Fast Food Restaurant: characterized by a large carry-out clientele, long hours of service (some are open for breakfast, are open for lunch and dinner, some are open late at night or 24 hours per day) and high turnover rates for eat-in customers; limited-service eating establishments do not provide table service; patrons generally order at a cash register and pay before they eat.

In recent years, we’ve seen a blurring of the lines between these Sit-Down and Fast Food categories with the development of a ‘fast casual’ land use. Originally started as a new restaurant’s way to stand-out from the fast food description (which is often regarded as not as healthy), the terminology has made its way into traffic engineer’s vocabulary. This naturally leads to two questions in regards to traffic – how do you define the fast casual land use? And is the traffic significantly different enough to have its own land use category?

Starting with the definition, it is somewhat subjective as the intro to this post alludes. A discussion in our office lead to multiple different opinions on which restaurants would be considered fast casual and which characteristics of those restaurants qualify it for the category.

Based on research from various sources, including restaurant trade groups, here’s the details we have settled on in determining whether a restaurant is “fast casual”:

  • No wait staff or table service. Orders are made and paid for first before food is prepared. Some may use food runners to bring your order to your table once complete.
  • Freshly made food as opposed to pre-assembled, usually with higher-quality ingredients and more unique/made-to-order menu items.
  • Priced around $10 per typical meal as compared to around $5 for a fast food meal.
  • Upscale ambiance for a more inviting sit-down experience.
  • Generally wage workers, although some customers will tip.

Admittedly, the lines between fast food and fast casual as well as fast casual and sit-down are not exact and in the eye of the beholder. As an example from the research, one customer may view Red Lobster as a fine dining experience while another would say it’s a casual sit-down restaurant. But based on the above bullets, here’s a list of some local restaurants and where we see them in the land use categories:

So what does it mean in terms of traffic generation – our second question. We gathered traffic data at multiple restaurants to see whether this blurry distinction really makes a difference in terms of traffic. Here’s our results:

As shown, the daily traffic was significantly different between the three categories. The peak hour information was equally different except for the p.m. peak hour of adjacent street traffic. Based on this Minnesota exclusive data, we think the ‘fast casual’ is a valid distinction for traffic engineers to note and we have begun trying to use our characteristics to better determine which category a new development will fit into.

Want to see our data? Download the latest trip generation spreadsheet and compare the raw data for restaurants and many other land uses yourself.

Have you collected traffic data for fast food or quality restaurants? Or have you collected trip generation data for other land uses?  We would like to hear from you!

We are looking to expand our research for fast food and quality restaurants as well as other land use categories and are looking for others interested in collecting data from their region.

Email us if you are interested in working with us to collect data. We will provide the data collection equipment!


Bryant Ficke Bio

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Mike Spack

My mission is to help traffic engineers, transportation planners, and other transportation professionals improve our world.

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