When you consider the type of restaurant you want to open, it may feel like the options are endless. Creating a complete list of potential restaurant types is impossible because restaurant owners are constantly innovating. Understanding restaurant types is a process of organizing restaurants in four different categories: business type, service type, service style, and cuisine type. Knowing how to identify a restaurant within each group will help you navigate the incredible number of restaurant types.
A firm grasp of restaurant types also helps you describe what you like about a particular restaurant. This knowledge is useful when you are performing market research of potential competitors in your location. The ability to categorize restaurants also helps you navigate reports from market research firms. This type of research shows how consumer trends may impact your business, which is invaluable when creating a restaurant business plan.
4 Categories That Determine Restaurant Type
Most distinctions between different types of restaurants boil down to variations in the kind of food served and the way it is served. Determining a restaurant’s business type, service type, service style, and cuisine makes it easy to express the full scope of a restaurant’s operation.
This type of description is commonly called a restaurant’s “concept.” The ability to express your restaurant’s concept is essential for restaurant owners who must quickly explain their restaurant idea to potential investors.
1. Determine Your Restaurant Business Type
The first question to answer when determining a restaurant’s type is who owns and operates the business? There are three possible answers: Restaurants can be independently owned, franchised, or part of a chain. Independent restaurants are owned and operated by a single owner. In a franchised restaurant concept, independent owners operate individual stores under the same brand name. In a chain restaurant, a single parent company owns and operates all of a restaurant’s locations.
Independent restaurants are privately owned and operated by individuals. In some cases, an independent restaurant owner works in the restaurant itself as either head chef or general manager. Independent restaurants can be any size, from a mom-and-pop diner to a fine dining palace of gastronomy. Seven out of 10 National Restaurant Association members are independent restaurants.
Sometimes people use the terms “chain” and “franchise” interchangeably, but they describe different kinds of businesses. A franchise restaurant is an independently owned business that has purchased the right to use major business components from a franchiser brand. These business components can be branded products, recipes, business logos, business models, and operational guidelines. The franchiser owns the brand, while the restaurant owner owns the physical restaurant.
Packaging a business into a franchise allows brands to expand into new locations quickly. McDonald’s and Subway are two good examples of this. Each of these brands expands massively through franchising their business model to independent restaurant owners. As a restaurant owner, you can buy a franchise location that you operate independently. Alternatively, if you create an innovative restaurant concept that other business owners want to duplicate, you could consider turning your business into a franchise.
Other popular brands like Chipotle and Starbucks, however, are not franchises. They expand using the chain model. In chain restaurants, a single company owns and manages all locations of the restaurant. Think of a company like Starbucks; the company owns and oversees the operation of all Starbucks locations.
McDonald’s is a franchise; Starbucks is a chain.
Unlike a franchise, a restaurant chain expands on its own dime, under its own steam. The restaurant owner retains and manages the entire business operation. As a restaurant owner, you can start a chain of restaurants by building a second location with the same concept as your first restaurant. You cannot, however, buy into a chain that already exists, as you can with a franchise.
2. Determine Restaurant Service Type
After categorizing a restaurant as an independent, franchise, or chain operation, we next consider the scope of the restaurant’s service. All restaurants fall into either the full-service or limited service category. Two qualities distinguish full-service restaurants (FSRs) from limited-service restaurants (LSRs): how much guidance customers receive from restaurant employees and at what point in the process customers pay for their meals.
In full-service restaurants, customers are guided by restaurant staff from the moment they arrive until the moment they leave. Many full-service restaurants have hosts greet guests at the front door and guide them to tables. Waitstaff advise customers about the menu options, take food and beverage orders, and deliver everything to the customer’s table. In FSRs, customers pay at the end of their meal. Diners are a good example of full-service restaurants, as are popular eateries like Chili’s and Applebee’s.
Limited-service restaurants are those where customers pay before they eat their food. This can take the form of a fast-food restaurant where customers order from a menu at a register. LSR’s can also be buffets or cafeterias where customers make selections from food steam tables and refrigerated cases, then pay before entering the dining room. Fast food restaurants and pizzerias are good examples of LSRs. Coffee shops, food trucks, catering operations, and buffets like Golden Corral are also LSRs.
3. Set a Restaurant Service Style
Service style is different from service type. Service style includes the nitty-gritty details of how food is actually presented, ordered, and delivered to customers. Other components of service style are what day-parts a restaurant operates and whether or not it has a bar. Day-part is restaurant-speak for a specific segment of the day, as well as what menu is served during those hours. The typical day-parts in a restaurant are breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
To really understand the difference between a restaurant’s service type and service style, think about the difference between a McDonalds and Golden Corral. They are both limited-service restaurants where customers pay before they eat. However, the restaurants differ in the way each presents its menu, handles customer orders, delivers food to customers, and the day-parts each operates are completely different.
Service styles are, however, somewhat related to service type. Service styles that are popular in full-service restaurants usually don’t translate to limited-service restaurants, and vice versa. Let’s start with a look at popular full-service restaurant service styles.
Family style restaurants are the most casual full-service restaurants. Staff at family restaurants present a full menu at customers’ tables. These menus feature choices for diners of all ages, from toddlers to grandparents. Family restaurants may also serve meals on platters that customers serve themselves. Typically family restaurants do not have a bar, though some offer wine and beer. Their price point tends to be moderate, and they are usually open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Diners are excellent examples of family restaurants.
The staff in a family restaurant may, themselves, be a family. Husband-wife, parent-child, and sibling teams are typical family restaurant ownership structures. Family restaurants tend to be drop-in affairs; no reservations, sit where you like, and someone will be with you shortly. The kitchen team is generally as small and efficient as the dining room team.
Casual restaurants are full-service restaurants with a laid-back atmosphere. These are the Chili’s and Applebee’s of the restaurant world. Casual eateries are places where customers can drop in without a reservation, grab a beer at the bar, or stay for a full-blown dinner. Casual restaurants tend to have a bar, and usually squeeze a happy hour service between lunch and dinner day-parts. This restaurant often doesn’t serve weekday breakfast, but it probably does a killer weekend brunch.
Prices are moderate and shareable appetizers are a popular menu feature. Staffs for casual restaurants tend to be large, mostly to cover all of the hours the restaurant is open. Casual restaurants may staff hourly supervisors in place of salaried managers, and the dining room staff usually cross-trains in many positions.
For example, waitstaff and supervisors typically share the duties of greeting and seating customers. Servers in casual restaurants run food from the kitchen and clear tables. Kitchens may run with a head chef or a kitchen manager leading a team of line cooks.
Upscale restaurants are full-service restaurants that operate at a higher menu price than casual spots. Upscale restaurants usually have a bar, though some may only serve wine and beer. Upscale restaurants typically serve lunch and dinner. Many upscale eateries close on slow days, like Sunday night dinner and all day Monday. Upscale restaurants usually take reservations and may enforce a light dress code, like no shorts in the evening.
The staff in an upscale restaurant tends to be large in the kitchen and the dining room. Upscale restaurants have two or three front of house managers, alongside a service staff that includes hosts, servers, bartenders, food runners, and bussers. In the kitchen, you’ll have a head chef, a couple of sous-chefs, as well as a full complement of line cooks.
Fine dining restaurants are full-service operations that are all about food and atmosphere. They tend to spend more resources on their ingredients and quality staff than other types of restaurants. The staff in a fine restaurant is large but concentrated. Because of the limited hours of operation, most fine dining restaurant staff work nearly full-time hours. Fine dining restaurants are where many “career” servers and cooks work.
Management-wise, fine dining restaurants always have an iconic, visionary head chef. In the dining room, fine restaurants may only have one manager. It is all about customer-to-staff ratios, though. A large or busy fine dining restaurant will have multiple managers working at the same time to ensure customers get the attention they expect. As you might have guessed, fine dining restaurant prices are at the top of the market. Fine dining joints may have a separate bar, or they may opt only to serve wine and beer.
Some fine dining restaurants also rely on a menu style called prix fixe. Pronounced to rhyme with three weeks (pree feeks), the term comes from the French for “fixed price.” In a prix fixe menu, the chef creates a multi-course menu served at a predetermined price. Customers don’t know what the menu will be, but they know the price. The prix fixe menu changes regularly, sometimes daily, and features the ingredients that the chef thinks are the very best.
With fine dining, we’ve reached the highest end of the full-service restaurant spectrum. Now let’s dive into popular limited-service restaurant styles.
The foundation of limited-service restaurant service styles is quick-service. Quick-service is the technical restaurant industry name for fast food restaurants. Quick-service restaurants display their menus on boards behind the counter where customers order. Customers order and pay at a register then wait for their food. Quick-service restaurants do not have bars and typically always have a drive-thru window.
Quick-service joints tend to feature a wide variety of preparations of a single dish. Burgers, tacos, pizza, hot dogs, and chicken sandwiches all provide excellent foundations for quick-service menus. Quick-service spots are the lowest price point of all restaurant types. They feature a large staff of entry-level workers with a few hourly supervisors to keep things on track. Most quick-service spots are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
A fast-casual restaurant is a type of limited-service restaurant that is a step above quick-service. Like their quick-serving cousins, fast-casual spots display their menus on boards behind a counter. Customers order and pay at a register, then wait for their food. Fast-casual restaurant menus, however, feature more fresh and dynamic ingredients than fast-food restaurants. A few have drive-thru windows, but most do not.
Fast-casuals do not have bars, but in some cities, they are permitted to sell bottles of wine or beer, which you might have seen in the fast-casual stalwart, Chipotle. As for staff, these restaurants feature kitchen managers instead of chefs and cashiers in place of waitstaff. Managers tend to be mostly hourly shift supervisors under the direction of a general manager.
The price point at fast-casuals tends to be low and on par with family restaurants. Most fast-casual spots are open for all three dayparts—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. More than other restaurants, fast-casual joints tend to have a unique menu proposition that features multiple spins on a single type of dish. Customized, built-to-order salads, burritos, sandwiches, grain bowls, or stir-fries are popular fast-casual menu models.
Fast-casual restaurants are great for creating innovative ways to serve food. Think of the assembly line model of ordering popularized by Chipotle and Subway. Assembly lines work well for preparing a wide variety of a single dish like a burrito. Fast-casual restaurants with more expansive menus attach customer orders to table stand numbers, so food runners know where to bring the food when it is ready. Still other restaurants provide customers with pagers so they can pick up their food themselves.
Delivery & Take-away
Delivery and take-away spots are limited service food operations that specialize in serving on-the-go food. Ghost kitchens that prepare food for delivery only are an excellent example of this foodservice model.
The price point of these operations tends to be low, and the menu can be either highly focused or range widely. Delivery and take-away operations do not typically serve alcohol. The staff is almost entirely kitchen staff, though they have a small team of cashiers to answer phone calls and organize the orders. Delivery operations also employ drivers.
Buffet & Self-service
Buffets are a popular form of limited-service restaurant in the US. They tend to operate for lunch and dinner on weekdays and expand to brunch service on the weekends. Buffets typically do not have a bar and do not serve alcohol. Customers pay a fixed price for access to the buffet before they enter the dining room.
Buffets have a lot of kitchen staff, usually under the direction of a kitchen manager. High-volume buffets may instead have an executive chef in the kitchen to manage the logistics of preparing the wide-ranging menu that customers expect at a buffet.
Other forms of self-service restaurants feature coolers of freshly prepared grab-and-go salads, sandwiches, or sushi, as in the well-known chain Pret-a-Manger. Cafeterias are self-service operations that combine buffet style and grab-and-go options.
4. Add Restaurant Cuisine Type
Cuisine means a style of cooking. Cuisine can refer to the method of cooking in a specific country or region, as in Japanese or Italian food. Cuisine can also refer to an individual dish that is made using a unique cooking method, like sushi or pizza. Words that describe cuisine are the ones customers rely on most frequently to describe restaurants. We’ll say we’re in the mood for Thai food tonight, or that our favorite restaurant is the barbecue joint down the street.
The cooking style of a country or region is the most common way people talk about restaurants. Mexican, Indian, Thai, Italian, French are all popular cuisine types in the US. When we talk about American food, though, we tend to mention specific dishes like burgers or styles of cooking like barbecue. We do the same thing with other foods we love.
For example, Italian food is popular, but Americans love pizza in its own right. Pizza is a dish so popular that it can be its own restaurant. Burgers and tacos share the same honor.
Examples of Popular Restaurant Cuisine Categories
By Specific Food
Burger Joint, Barbecue
Burrito Bar, Taqueria
Global cuisines are endless. They can even be combined, like the way Pan-Latin restaurants feature dishes from many countries throughout Central and South America on one menu. Pan-Asian restaurants combine recipes from any number of countries on the continent of Asia.
Alternatively, some restaurants combine two seemingly unrelated cooking traditions to create a fusion menu. Fusion is literally a cuisine that fuses two cultures, such as the format at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant Chinois, which combines French and Chinese influences.
Farm-to-table restaurants feature locally grown ingredients like meats and produce. Some farm-to-table restaurants even grow ingredients on-site. A farm-to-table restaurant can feature the food of any region or country. The farm-to-table label can be added to any cuisine to further modify and focus a restaurant’s concept. For example, Denver restaurant El Jefe is a farm-to-table Mexican restaurant.
As consumers eat more healthfully with each passing year, dietary concerns have influenced the kind of food restaurants serve. A restaurant that focuses on vegan or vegetarian dishes usually broadcasts that fact on their menu, like Santa Monica vegan Italian restaurant Pura Vita.
Restricted dining styles like macrobiotic (based in Zen Buddhism) or paleo (based on the diet of human ancestors) can also provide restaurant inspiration—as they did for Los Angeles macrobiotic restaurant M Cafe and Portland paleo restaurant Cultured Caveman.
How Restaurant Types Become a Restaurant Concept
If you are in the process of starting a restaurant, consider each of the categories listed above and decide which option best fits your restaurant idea. When you put all your answers together, you will have your restaurant concept. The phrase “Franchise Limited-Service Quick-Service Burger restaurant” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, though. You can, however, finesse the order of the words. A “quick-service burger franchise” is a much smoother phrase to drop into your business plan.
To get a firm grasp of restaurant concepts, let’s walk through a few examples. The restaurant where you grab a breakfast sandwich and a coffee on your way to work is a limited, quick-service American franchise restaurant. For lunch, you might catch a bite from a limited, quick-service burrito chain. The place where you meet your colleagues for happy hour after work is a full-service, casual American franchise restaurant. You might meet someone at the same place for a first date.
The eatery you choose for a third date, though, is probably an independent, full-service, upscale Italian restaurant. For your anniversary dinner, you’re likely looking for an independent, full-service, fine-dining French farm-to-table restaurant.
If you are opening a restaurant, knowing which type of restaurant you have designed will help you make decisions about what equipment to buy and what staff to hire. Applying your knowledge about the various types of restaurants will also help you identify your direct competitors and determine the best name and best location for your concept.
For example, putting an independent, limited-service, fast-casual noodle bar in a neighborhood full of fine dining restaurants might seem counterintuitive. If you plan to run late hours to cater to hungry restaurant workers finishing their dinner shifts, however, it could be an inspired idea.