Colorado, Florida Residents Really Love “Fast Casual” Restaurants

“Fast casual” is that vague food industry term for eateries that nicer than your typical fast food joint but aren’t really what you would consider sit-down restaurants. They’re the kind of place where you often get lunch at a counter, but the food and service are generally better [Think Chipotle or Panera]. It’s been a growth segment in an industry that’s been somewhat flat in recent years, and according to a new survey, six of the 10 most dense fast casual populations are in either Colorado or Florida.

According to the NPD Group [via BurgerBusiness], there are currently 15,728 fast casual chain restaurants operating in the U.S., averaging out to 5 such eateries for every 100,000 people in the country, but the 10 metro areas with the highest level of fast casual density were each more than double that ratio.

The area with the highest restaurant/people ratio is Fort Collins, CO, where the area’s 311,934 residents have 41 fast casual restaurants to choose from. In other words, there are 13.14 such restaurants per 100K people.

Not far south of Fort Collins on I-25 lies Denver, with 337 fast casual restaurants for 2.6 million people (12.76 restaurants/100K residents). A nice drive from either of these two areas is Boulder, CO, with the third-highest density at 12.53 restaurants per 100,000 residents.

Florida is also well-represented in the top 10. Tallahassee comes in at #4 with a density of 11.74; Gainesville is sixth with 11.69, while Orlando’s 10.22 ratio is enough to make the cut at number 10.

It’s not a huge surprise to see Las Vegas, which caters to an on-the-go population and visitors who are hungry at all hours, made the cut. It came in 7th with 225 fast casual spots for a population of just over 2 million (11.13/100K people).

The most populous area to make the top 10 density list is the Washington, D.C., metro area, with 5.8 million residents. It also had the most total eateries at 593. However, that ratio (10.23/100K people) only ranks 9th overall.

While some may bemoan the growth of fast casual chains, NPD’s Greg Starzynski says that the encroachment of these higher quality eateries is helping to raise the bar at typical fast food chains.

“Traditional quick service restaurants have taken notice and are working to compete with the fast casual chains’ offerings, especially in terms of the freshness and quality of food,” explains Starzynski. “All of these efforts will benefit both the consumer and industry.”

In case you’re curious, here are the fast casual chains used for the NPD survey:
Atlanta Bread Company, Back Yard Burgers, Baja Fresh, Bajio Mexican Grill, Boloco/The Wrap, Boston Market, Bruegger’s Bagels, Burgerville USA, Camille’s Sidewalk Cafe,, Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop, Chipotle, Corner Bakery, Cosi, Counter, Crispers, Daphnes Greek Cafe, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Farmer Boys, Fatburger, Fazoli’s, Firehouse Subs, Five Guys, Freebirds World Burrito, Fuddruckers, Habit Burger Grill, Jason’s Deli, Jerry’s Subs & Pizza, La Madeleine, LeeAnn Chin, McAlister’s Deli, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Noodles & Company, Panda Express, Panera, Paradise Bakery & Cafe, Pei Wei Asian Diner, Penn Station Steak & Sub, Pick Up Stix, Pollo Campero, Pollo Tropical, Portillo’s Hot Dogs, Potbelly, Pret A Manger, Qdoba, Raising Canes, Red Brick Pizza, Rubio’s, Rumbi Island Grill, SaladWorks, Samurai Sam Jr., Sandella’s Cafe, Schlotzky’s Deli, Shane’s Rib Shack, Smash Burger, Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes, Specialty’s Cafe & Bakery, Tijuana Flats Burrito Co., Tokyo Joe’s, Wahoo’s Fish Taco, Which Wich, Wingstop, Z Pizza, Zaxby’s, Zoup