A spa in Burger King? A Taco Bell lounge? This is the future of fast food

By Travis M. Andrews

Burger King's latest dining option -  a sauna in Helsinki, Finland. Photo / Facebook
Burger King's latest dining option - a sauna in Helsinki, Finland. Photo / Facebook

If you've ever wanted to work up a nice sweat after eating a Whopper and a side of fries, a new Burger King has you covered. Recently, a Burger King outfitted with a spa has opened in Helsinki, Finland, CNN reported. It includes a 15-seat sauna, shower, locker room and a media lounge with televisions and gaming consoles.

While that might sound strange, it's another example in a string of changes and innovations to classic fast-food brands, as they attempt to adapt to the trend of fast-casual eateries.

Last year, Taco Bell began selling liquor at a location in Chicago. This year the taco chain, known mostly for its hyper-cheap fare, will unveil a new design for its restaurants.

The interiors of four current restaurants in Orange County, California, will be transformed by Mission Revival-esque architecture - exposed wooden beams with dangling light fixtures, white walls and community seating.

The wood will all be reclaimed from California ports, and the locations will be lit by LED lights. They'll include outdoor dining areas and cushioned furniture. Four additional restaurants sharing this design will open later in the year.

Taco Bell's and Burger King's announcements come just weeks after McDonald's made a similar one. This summer, it will open a 6,500-square-foot location in St. Joseph, Mo., which will feature order kiosks (where you can customize burgers with ease), armchairs, couches and table-side service, the Kansas City Star reported last month.

A few years ago, Popeye's took its New Orleans-themed fried chicken restaurants upscale, adding wrought iron and exposed wood to the dining areas of some locations. Several Starbucks have recently unveiled a "Starbucks Evenings" menu, which serves "gourmet" dishes like truffle macaroni and cheese and bacon-wrapped dates alongside glasses of prosecco or cold pints of craft beer.

The one thing all these changes have in common is there's nothing "fast" about them.

While fast food's model used to be so focused on handing customers their food and getting them out the door that drive-throughs became popular and McDonald's marketed itself on how many billions of burgers it had sold, the new iteration seems to be moving toward spaces and menus that entice diners to stay a while.

At Starbucks, customers might seamlessly slip from a late-afternoon coffee into an early happy hour. With Taco Bell's new lounges, millennials might change the lyrics of Bob Dylan's classic song to "One More Taco Before I Go."

After all, as noted in a report by the Boston Consulting Group, "millennials tend to prefer fast casual options such as Panera Bread, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Pei Wei Asian Diner." These - alongside many others like Shophouse, Chop't and Sweetgreen - are currently the darling of the "quick bite" portion of the dining industry. Their combined sales are predicted to reach $62 billion in 2019, a large jump from its $39 billion in 2014, the Chicago Tribune reported.

We hope that we see a renewed interest in actually using it as a place to go out to dinner versus picking up convenience and food to go home.

Diners enjoy the feeling of dining without emptying their wallets at high-end restaurants.

In comparison, a piece in The New Yorker last November noted that "almost 70 percent of customers at places like McDonalds . . . get their food at a drive-through." But, as young people move away from drive-throughs and fast food, the chains are hurting. Last year was the first since 1970 that McDonald's closed more locations than it opened, USA Today reported.

Meanwhile, from 2004 to 2014, the number of fast-casual restaurants in the U.S. grew from 9,000 to about 21,000, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Now, these grandfathered chains seem to be following that old adage: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

"We hope that we see a renewed interest in actually using it as a place to go out to dinner versus picking up convenience and food to go home," said Deborah Brand, vice president of development and design at Taco Bell, according to USA Today.

"Today's customers seek a comfortable and inviting atmosphere," Chris Habiger, owner of the forthcoming St. Joseph's McDonald's, told the St. Joseph News-Press. "So we're committed to providing a modern look and feel to this restaurant."

The only thing that stops growth is relevancy to the customer.

But don't expect a spa in your local Burger King or a lounge your corner Taco Bell on the corner anytime soon. The rise in fast-food restaurants converting to fast-casual will likely be a slow one. After all, there are more than 5,500 Taco Bells and more than 15,000 McDonald's in the U. S. alone

Not to mention, the market could change at any moment. What's driving these companies isn't a nice dining experience for the sake of a nice dining experience. It's revenue.

"The only thing that stops growth is relevancy to the customer," Mike Donahue, former McDonald's chief communications officer who has since co-founded the fast-casual Lyfe Kitchen chain, told USA Today.

At the moment, that relevancy comes across in prolonged meals - at least longer than it takes to scarf down a couple of tacos - with an emphasis on experience over speed. So that is what the fast-food chains will try to mimic. And if trends should change again, and drive-throughs come back in vogue, then the fast-food chains will likely change again.

As McDonald's vice-president of culinary information Dan Coudreaut told The New Yorker, "Our main job is to create value for our shareholders, for our company, for our restaurateurs. We are not a nonprofit organization and we are not married to any one area. We are married to being a successful business. Society is shifting in a major direction, so guess what - McDonald's is going to shift, too.''

- Washington Post

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