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How do you define "fast food"?

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?

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

    1 Reply
    1. re: bbqboy

      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. 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

          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

            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

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

            2. re: carolinadawg

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

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

              1 Reply
              1. re: John Francis

                Now, buffets are definitely the exception to that.

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

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: FrankJBN

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

                    1. 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

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

                        1. re: carolinadawg

                          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

                            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

                              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

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


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

                            13 Replies
                            1. re: Veggo

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

                                1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                  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

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

                                    1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                      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

                                        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

                                          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

                                            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

                                              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

                                                There are Pizza Huts in Maryland that have table service.

                                                1. re: Vidute

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

                                                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                    < 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

                                                      ah, got it. thanks for the confirmation :)

                                2. 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. 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

                                      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

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

                                        1. re: carolinadawg

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

                                          1. re: FoodPopulist

                                            <I can eat spaghetti while driving>

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

                                    2. 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. Mostly franchised. Always processed=GROSS.

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

                                          1. 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. http://www.researchandmarkets.com/rep...
                                              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

                                                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

                                                  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

                                                    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.

                                                  1. re: Janet from Richmond

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

                                                    1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                      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

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

                                                      2. re: goodhealthgourmet

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

                                                        1. re: charles_sills

                                                          We have one or two in Southern Oregon.

                                                          1. re: charles_sills

                                                            And Little Caesars has drive-throughs

                                                        2. re: Janet from Richmond

                                                          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. 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

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

                                                            2. 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. 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

                                                                  <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

                                                                    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

                                                                      <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

                                                                        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.