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How do you define "fast food"?

cresyd Aug 28, 2012 02:24 AM

While McDonald's is the immediate definition that pops into my head defining what fast food is (I guess similar to the regional tendancy of calling all sodas Coke) - I don't really know what I would/would not include. Is Chipolte fast food? Does fast food need to be a franchise or chain, or would a privately owned, single location of a drive-through burger joint be fast food? Is this mainly a US/Canada term and when you get overseas definitions change?

  1. bbqboy Aug 28, 2012 03:20 AM

    Fast food means a walk up and order counter and no table service.

    1 Reply
    1. re: bbqboy
      bagelman01 Aug 28, 2012 08:42 AM

      It can be a hybrid.
      Here in Southern CT there is a local fast food chain called Duchess. It looks and operates on a McDs model with counter service, drive-thru and fill your own soda/soffee. BUT except for Fries being ready in the bin and hot dogs sitting on the flat top, burgers, sandwiches and meals are cooked to order.
      There are about 14-15 locations and some franchises serve meals on ceramic dishes, which the customer must bus and place in dish bins, some only use paper wrappers an foam plates (for cooked meals). Most call ot your order number for pick up when ready, but a couple (such as Shelton) deliver your order to you table if your eat in.

      There advertising slogan: Not fast food, but fresh food fast.

      Still in all, I and most loals consider these as fast food restaurants.


    2. carolinadawg Aug 28, 2012 03:25 AM

      I think of fast food as a place where you order, pay and get food at a counter, then bus your own table. Doesn't matter if there is a or isn't a drive thru window, one location or a thousand. There are gray areas. It's like porn, I know it when I see it.

      5 Replies
      1. re: carolinadawg
        Davwud Aug 28, 2012 04:10 AM

        You stole my line!!


        1. re: carolinadawg
          Harters Aug 28, 2012 10:17 AM

          That pretty much nails it as a description for me. I also know it when I see it, better than I can describe it.

          1. re: carolinadawg
            jinet12 Aug 28, 2012 06:49 PM

            And I know it when I smell it. The smell that's still in your car the next
            day when you drive to work. That's when you remember that there's
            something very wrong about fast food.

            1. re: jinet12
              Veggo Aug 28, 2012 07:09 PM

              Reminds me of the high school prom, without the fast food.

            2. re: carolinadawg
              Chemicalkinetics Aug 29, 2012 09:33 PM

              As others said, you pretty much nail the definition I know as well.

            3. j
              John Francis Aug 28, 2012 04:11 AM

              Like everyone is saying, except that cafeterias, buffets, etc. aren't usually thought of as fast food joints.

              1 Reply
              1. re: John Francis
                Chemicalkinetics Aug 29, 2012 09:33 PM

                Now, buffets are definitely the exception to that.

              2. pinehurst Aug 28, 2012 04:27 AM

                To the "no table service" I would also add that the food is not made to order...that's why I think of cafeterias as fast food.

                1. f
                  FrankJBN Aug 28, 2012 09:16 AM

                  Food is pre-prepared and pre-packaged, not prepared to order, thus service of food is "fast".

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: FrankJBN
                    bagelman01 Aug 28, 2012 09:21 AM

                    Then by your standards, McDs, BK and Wendys are NOT Fast Food?????
                    The food is already cooked, BUt not ackaged until you order it. Especially BK-'Have it your way' who dresses the burger to order McD assembles your sandwich as you order, as oppoed to items such as a Sausage burrito which is porepackaged. But a Sausage McMuffin order will have the assembler pulling an English Muffin, then a suasage patty from a pastic warming drawer, slapping on a slice orange 'cheez' and wrapping in paper.

                  2. r
                    redfish62 Aug 28, 2012 09:25 AM

                    It's like pornography, I can't define it but I know it when I see it.

                    1. c
                      cgarner Aug 28, 2012 09:33 AM

                      my own personal definition... those big chains that serve really crappy overly processed food
                      McD's, BK, Popeyes, Subway, Taco Bell, Wendy's, Chik-fil-a...
                      wayyy too much fat
                      wayyy too much sodium
                      wayyy too much sugar
                      (sorry, not TRYING to be preachy)

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: cgarner
                        carolinadawg Aug 28, 2012 09:42 AM

                        What about a single unit restaurant, i.e., not a large chain?

                        1. re: carolinadawg
                          cresyd Aug 28, 2012 11:39 PM

                          I have to say, that I kind of agree with feeling 'preachy' when it comes to what I define by fast food.

                          I've been to quite a few sea food places in Cape Code/coastal New England where you order at a counter, there's no table service, food is served on paper/plastic/styrofoam put on a plastic tray, and it's very fresh, high quality seafood (and at times easily as pricey as a more upscale restaurant). I wouldn't call that fastfood - even if I've ordered a basket of fried little neck clams that probably are similar in nutrition to chicken nuggets.

                          1. re: carolinadawg
                            cgarner Aug 29, 2012 09:19 AM

                            I'm thinking no... and I don't have any reasonable explanation for that
                            when we were in Vegas, we stopped at the food court in the Riviera, I got a meal from India Masala, they have two restaurants, both in Vegas... the food was great.. and fast... but probably had as much fat and sodium as if I had gotten something from Quizzno's (yuk, why would I do that?)

                            1. re: cgarner
                              Chemicalkinetics Aug 29, 2012 09:39 PM

                              Yep, I responded in a different post down there too. There is a narrow definition, but wider accepted definition of fast food, and yours fits in that. For example, southern barbecue joints, buffets, Chinese dim sum restaurants, Chinese joints, sushi restaurants, Vietnamese Pho joints, salad bars.....can all be faster serving than McDonald, but most do not consider them as fast foods.

                            2. re: carolinadawg
                              Davwud Aug 29, 2012 09:24 AM

                              Fast food is fast food. Doesn't matter if it's a global chain or a mom and pop.


                          2. Veggo Aug 28, 2012 09:52 AM

                            Any place where I don't feel a need to tip.

                            13 Replies
                            1. re: Veggo
                              alliegator Aug 29, 2012 12:30 PM

                              Bingo! I was trying to think of my own definition, but this is it.

                              1. re: Veggo
                                goodhealthgourmet Aug 29, 2012 01:04 PM

                                what about pizza places?

                                1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                  Veggo Aug 29, 2012 04:18 PM

                                  If I'm dining in on pizza, I don't consider it to be fast food. And I tip. Pick up and by-the-slice, no tip. Is it fast food then? You tell me...

                                  1. re: Veggo
                                    goodhealthgourmet Aug 30, 2012 09:34 AM

                                    so if you're [theoretically] "dining in" at Pizza Hut or Domino's, it's not fast food?

                                    1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                      Veggo Aug 30, 2012 09:54 AM

                                      I can't imagine how either case could ever come about, maybe if I had just been released from prison. But I guess that if I'm served a cardboard box and I clean up after myself, and the pizza was pre-made, awaiting my order for toppings, and it cooked in 3 minutes, it would qualify as fast food. I would leave one dollar for the delivery to the table. Sort of a "tweener".

                                      1. re: Veggo
                                        goodhealthgourmet Aug 30, 2012 11:08 AM

                                        i was thinking more along the lines of the locations with table service. they used to have them - though it's been at least 25 years since i was in one so perhaps they no longer exist...?

                                        1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                          Veggo Aug 30, 2012 11:26 AM

                                          They are there - I'm from the land (New Haven) of Pepe's, Sally's, Modern, and others that are primarily eat-in, but I don't get back very often. Regina's in Boston's North End is a destination.

                                          1. re: Veggo
                                            goodhealthgourmet Aug 30, 2012 11:50 AM

                                            i meant low-end chains (like the ones i mentioned) with table service. places like Pepe's & Sally's are an entirely different breed. the last time i ate Pizza Hut was with my dad's sister in Maryland when i was around 12 years old - we sat inside at a full-service table, but IMO it still qualifies as fast food.

                                            1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                              Veggo Aug 30, 2012 11:54 AM

                                              I don't notice if they are still around because I wouldn't ever go. Some I think offer a lunch pizza buffet? Fast food, definitely.

                                              1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                                Vidute Aug 31, 2012 12:16 AM

                                                There are Pizza Huts in Maryland that have table service.

                                                1. re: Vidute
                                                  goodhealthgourmet Aug 31, 2012 11:04 AM

                                                  as i said, the last time i ate Pizza Hut was at a location in Maryland with table service...?

                                                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                                    Vidute Sep 4, 2012 04:47 PM

                                                    < though it's been at least 25 years since i was in one so perhaps they no longer exist...?>

                                                    You had stated that you were not sure if Pizza Huts with table service still existed. I was informing you that there are still Pizza Huts in Maryland that have table service.

                                                    1. re: Vidute
                                                      goodhealthgourmet Sep 5, 2012 06:02 PM

                                                      ah, got it. thanks for the confirmation :)

                                2. KaimukiMan Aug 28, 2012 09:58 AM

                                  My personal definition is probably narrower than other peoples.

                                  1) must be a large regional or national chain
                                  2) most/many locations have a drive thru
                                  3) it is virtually impossible to get a 'well balanced meal'
                                  4) it is most often "served" in a paper sack

                                  1. Ruthie789 Aug 28, 2012 10:28 AM

                                    My idea of fast food is to go to a counter, or drive through and pick up ready made food quickly. It could be a franchise or a privately owned business. Anything that is convenient is fast food to me.

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: Ruthie789
                                      Chowbird Aug 28, 2012 11:18 AM

                                      I tend to think of fast food as "vehicle" food -- designed to eat while you drive or ride (as opposed to "pedestrian" food --think state fair, with anything-on-a-stick, or "street food" -- or a sit-down dining experience).

                                      If it has a playground or includes a toy with kids' meals, it's fast food. :)

                                      1. re: Chowbird
                                        carolinadawg Aug 28, 2012 11:38 AM

                                        I hope you don't eat Taco Bell while driving. You'll be wearing your lunch if you do! :-)

                                        1. re: carolinadawg
                                          FoodPopulist Aug 28, 2012 12:02 PM

                                          I can eat spaghetti while driving. Taco Bell is child's play.

                                          1. re: FoodPopulist
                                            Chemicalkinetics Aug 29, 2012 09:43 PM

                                            <I can eat spaghetti while driving>

                                            I don't want to drive next to you. :D

                                    2. Will Owen Aug 28, 2012 05:11 PM

                                      Even if the food is cooked to order, as In-N-Out burgers are, my criteria are that the food should be available almost immediately; the menu be limited and generally unchanging (except for seasonal specials and promotions); ordering should be at a window or counter; food handed over in a sack, box, or on a self-bus tray; dine-in customers are expected to clear their own tables whether they actually do or not … Most of these are not hard and fast, as the Hardee's/Carl's Jr. people bring the food to dine-in customers and will clear your table afterwards if you leave it for them, which I never do, but that's definitely a fast-food chain.

                                      1. natewrites Aug 28, 2012 05:28 PM

                                        Mostly franchised. Always processed=GROSS.

                                        1. emglow101 Aug 28, 2012 08:49 PM

                                          Do the hot dogs, burritos, or sandwiches you see at gas station mini marts count. That's really fast.

                                          1. Passadumkeg Aug 29, 2012 12:24 PM

                                            A radical old school point of view, if it isn't slow cooked w/ "real ingredients", it is fast food. Think Olive Garden or other of the chain ilk.

                                            1. paulj Aug 29, 2012 12:31 PM

                                              From a business research perspective

                                              "The fast food market is defined as the sale of food and drinks for immediate consumption either on the premises or in designated eating areas shared with other foodservice operators, or for consumption elsewhere. ... The market is broken down in to four segments: ...

                                              QSR's are defined as: locations where the primary function is to provide full meals but where table service is not offered.

                                              Takeaways are defined as: establishments that provide freshly prepared food for immediate consumption and where typically 80% or more of revenues come from consumers who take the food off the premises to consume.

                                              Mobile & street vendors are defined as: Either individual mobile stalls or vans that offer a limited range of freshly prepared food as well as beverages.

                                              Leisure locations are defined as: locations serving food and drinks for immediate consumption on premises within leisure outlets (such as Cinemas, Theatres, Racecourses etc.) that the Leisure operator owns and operates itself. "

                                              So in this framework, most of us are thinking of QSRs - full meals but limited table service. We complicate the definition by adding a value judgement, trying to include all the establishments that we don't like, but exclude ones we admire.

                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: paulj
                                                KaimukiMan Aug 29, 2012 01:42 PM

                                                good information, but i especially like your summary.

                                                i wonder if the 'value judgement' is more about what we think is good for us rather than what we like. I really like french fries, but i think overall they aren't good for me, this pushes them and places that make them easy to obtain into a negative view of fast food, blurring the lines between fast food and junk food.

                                                1. re: paulj
                                                  brucesw Aug 29, 2012 02:26 PM

                                                  Yes, good information. Two things have been under discussion in this thread, a definition of fast food and a definition of a fast food restaurant.

                                                  Another category as I understand it is fast casual or quick casual which is a restaurant where you order at a counter but your food is brought out to your table, and in my experience, 'fast' gets stretched to cover a longer wait time than you might experience at, say, McDonald's where you typically never even step away from the counter before you get your food.. But then what about Culver's? You order at a counter and your food is brought out to you, but I would certainly classify Culver's as a fast food restaurant.

                                                  And, as mentioned above, gas stations and convenience stores, where you pick up a pre-made sandwich or salad that was probably made off premises, maybe a couple of days earlier, or you assemble you own hot dog or nuke a packaged burrito or fried pie? Do they come under QSRs?

                                                  For many people, including some on this thread, the notion of 'fast food' has come to be pejorative, signifying inferior quality food aimed at people with no taste, but it doesn't have to be.

                                                  1. re: brucesw
                                                    cresyd Aug 29, 2012 11:32 PM

                                                    I think a large part of what is fast food is tied to a value judgement - both value in regards to perceived health/quality of the food and value related to the cost/cheapness. Cape Cod is covered in these little seafood shacks that are by no means cheap (and if you get a fried seafood platter/basket not really healthy), you order at the counter, and sometimes the food isn't even brough to you (a la Culver's). But mentally, this ranks to me as "beach food" and "vacation food".

                                                    Also, when I've been traveling abroad - whenever someone has gotten a case of food poisoning/travel tummy, the first food idea that emerges has been McDonald's or KFC. Not because it was the cheapest option or the healthiest, but because it mentally registered as "clean and boring". In the US going to KFC after a horrible case of food poisoning would seem ridiculous - but in Egypt - it seemed completely logical. Just a different value judgement based on the place and context.

                                                2. j
                                                  Janet from Richmond Aug 29, 2012 01:51 PM

                                                  I define it as having a drive-thru.

                                                  8 Replies
                                                  1. re: Janet from Richmond
                                                    goodhealthgourmet Aug 29, 2012 02:04 PM

                                                    playing devil's advocate here, do you think Chipotle, Subway and Blimpie are fast food? none of them have drive-thrus...

                                                    1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                                      Janet from Richmond Aug 29, 2012 02:11 PM

                                                      I don't think of them as fast food. I realize others do, but when a person says "I don't eat fast food" or fast food is being thrown under the bus, I think of McD's, Hardees, Taco Bell, etc.

                                                      1. re: Janet from Richmond
                                                        goodhealthgourmet Aug 29, 2012 02:23 PM

                                                        gotcha. i happen to be one of the "others who do," which is why i was curious.

                                                      2. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                                        charles_sills Aug 29, 2012 03:29 PM

                                                        i have actually seen one subway with a drive through. only one i have seen. cambridge ohio.

                                                        1. re: charles_sills
                                                          bbqboy Aug 29, 2012 07:59 PM

                                                          We have one or two in Southern Oregon.

                                                          1. re: charles_sills
                                                            Vidute Aug 29, 2012 11:44 PM

                                                            And Little Caesars has drive-throughs

                                                        2. re: Janet from Richmond
                                                          Vidute Aug 29, 2012 11:51 PM

                                                          If you purchase a pickled egg or pickled pig's foot along with a six-pack at drive-through liquor store, is this fast food?

                                                          1. re: Janet from Richmond
                                                            Davwud Aug 30, 2012 04:10 AM



                                                          2. johnb Aug 29, 2012 06:35 PM

                                                            IIRC the industry definition of fast food is finished food (ie ready to serve food) that has been partially or totally pre-cooked for inventory, not to specific customer order, for the purpose of facilitating quick service. Thus, any dish containing as a principal ingredient non-raw food that was cooked prior to the customer order and is served quickly can be considered to be fast food. IMO, this is the key characteristic. It doesn't matter whether or not the establishment is a chain or independent, has a drive through or doesn't, offers carry out or not, serves some food that is not fast food, serves "healthy" food or junk, etc.

                                                            1 Reply
                                                            1. re: johnb
                                                              Veggo Aug 29, 2012 06:38 PM

                                                              Too much of the pre-cooking seems to happen within the previous week. Include me out.

                                                            2. Chemicalkinetics Aug 29, 2012 09:05 PM

                                                              The very board and literal definition of fast food includes food which can be prepared in a very short duration. However, most people do not go by this definition. There is a more specific but widely accepted definition of fast food which only includes certain foods, but excluding others. For example, most people don't consider salad or wonton noodle soup or southern barbecue as fast food even though these can be prepared even faster than the standard burgers and fries.

                                                              For most people, they think of fast foods as something which can be served very quickly, low budget, mass/batch produced...etc. In addition, fast foods are the type of food you often see in quick serve restaurants aka QSR. What is QSR? QSR is pretty much what carolinadawg described.

                                                              "A fast food restaurant, also known as a quick service restaurant (QSR), is described as a limited menu establishment which lends itself to production line techniques of producing food that is served packaged for immediate consumption, on or off the restaurant premises. Fast food customers normally order at a counter and pay before eating. "

                                                              In order words, fast food restaurants are limited served restaurants, not full served restaurants. That being said, you can have fast food type of food served in a full service restaurant, like a hamburger or fries served in a high end restaurant. Obviously, the high end restaurant burger and fries are most likely to taste much better. On the other hand, you can also have non-fast food type of food served in a fast food restaurant, like McDonald selling sliced fruit and fruit salad:


                                                              Obviously, most people won't say apple slices as fast food, but McDonald is still a fast food restaurant.

                                                              Based on some of your questions, it seem that you were actually asking about fast food restaurants, not fast food themselves, like Is Chipolte fast food (restaurant) and Does fast food (restaurants) need to be a franchise or chain . Fast food and fast food restaurants have strong overlaps, but not absolutely, as mentioned earlier.

                                                              To answer your specific question.

                                                              I haven't been to Chipolte for a long time, but if I remember it correctly, then the answer is yes. Yes, it is a fast food restaurant.

                                                              Fast food restaurants do not have to be part of a franchise or a chain.

                                                              1. tim irvine Sep 5, 2012 04:43 PM

                                                                Fast food is the food I crave, at which all others sneer, which they love too but to which they will not admit. I want a Whataburger with cheese and jalapeños.

                                                                4 Replies
                                                                1. re: tim irvine
                                                                  Chemicalkinetics Sep 5, 2012 06:55 PM

                                                                  <Fast food is the food I crave, at which all others sneer, which they love too but to which they will not admit.>

                                                                  Heh heh heh. I think you are defining "junk food", which has a good overlap with "fast food".


                                                                  Tim, you are a Brit, right? If so, here is a question for you. Is "Fish and Chip" fast food/junk food according to most Brits?

                                                                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                                                    tim irvine Sep 5, 2012 07:17 PM

                                                                    Chem, it's not junk food. It is LOADED with psychological nutrients! (__8 ])

                                                                    Nope, I am not. Brit, although I have lived there. Born in Boston, grew up up on all three coasts and am now in Austin. I think most Brits think fondly of good fish and chips. I sure do. My fave is grilled halibut cheeks in Seattle, served with herbed, grilled potato wedges. They are fast and amazing. Lots of great food is very fast. Veal saltimbocca is probably prepared more quickly than a home made burger.

                                                                    Don't know about your neck of the woods, but in Austin the food trailer scene is blurring a lot of lines between fast food and fine dining.

                                                                    1. re: tim irvine
                                                                      Chemicalkinetics Sep 5, 2012 07:28 PM

                                                                      <Nope, I am not. Brit>

                                                                      Sorry about confusing you with the wrong information.

                                                                      Austin? As in Austin, Texas?

                                                                      <I think most Brits think fondly of good fish and chips.>

                                                                      I know.... Afterall, we Americans also think fondly of hamburger, hot dogs and French fries.

                                                                      <Austin the food trailer scene is blurring a lot of lines between fast food and fine dining>


                                                                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                                                        tim irvine Sep 6, 2012 04:56 PM

                                                                        Yes, Austin, Texas, the place where people from the coasts go to miss seafood. But there's a trailer with lobster rolls I may try tomorrow at lunch.

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