Fast food refers to food that can prepared and served very quickly. However, the term is usually used for food sold in restaurants which is prepared with precooked ingredients. The term "fast-food" first appeared in the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1951.
The fast-food industry, which has spread all around the world, has its origins in the United States. Fast-food restaurants are characterized by informality, focus on speed and friendly personnel.
Louis Lassen is said to be the first to have ever served a hamburger sandwich. Legend has it that in 1900, in New Haven, Connecticut, one of Louis Lassen's customers wanted to have lunch in a hurry, so Lassen formed the ground beef into a patty, cooked it and put it between two slices of white bread.
The fast-food phenomenon grew bigger in the early 1940s, together with the rising popularity of cars. Restaurant owners designed drive-in restaurants that allowed people to order food and eat without even leaving their cars. In 1948, they simplified the menus so that they served nothing which required the use of a knife, spoon or fork. Disposable cups and plates were introduced. The food preparation tasks were divided into a production line.
Fast-food restaurants come in a wide variety of forms and offer products ranging from hamburgers, pizzas and French fries to traditional foods such as Chinese meals, Turkish kebabs and Indian curries. While hamburger shops are dominated by large companies, ethnic restaurants usually belong to small independent owners.
In fast-food restaurants, customers choose their meals from a limited list of offerings for fast consumption. Customers usually place their orders at a counter, the food is served quickly either on trays or packaged. Customers are supposed to carry their trays to the table and throw out their own trash when they have finished eating. The fast-food industry addresses people who want quick inexpensive meals.
Large companies have entered the fast-food market in recent years and competition in the industry has become fierce. This has resulted in aggressive pricing policies among the main competitors and an increase in menu diversification. Companies started to develop new products in order to increase sales and market shares. The main fast-food chains expanded their business into new locations such as hospitals, schools, highway stations, parks, shopping centers and even prisons.
Moreover, consumer habits have started to change. People are now more concerned about health and the fat content of their meals. As people have become more interested in controlling their weight, consumption of poultry has increased, while consumption of red meats has declined. As a result, fast-food restaurants started to reduce the amount of fats in their food and started to sell new products. For example, some restaurants offer baked potatoes as an alternative to French fries or sell prepackaged salads.
As some consumers found it more convenient to eat at home, the take-away and home delivery services were created to suit their needs. Even supermarkets tried to stay in line, offering their clients sandwiches and salads. People can buy dinner in just a few minutes and take it home to eat it with their families or simply order it on the phone.
One important organizational feature of the fast-food industry is the franchise. It is one of the most important means of expanding and increasing sales. Multinationals manage to maintain uniformity by imposing the independent operators certain sets of rules, from requiring considerable financial commitment including non-refundable deposits, to strict monitoring of performance and standards. The franchisee might be asked to work many unpaid hours in the restaurant before the franchise is granted. Franchise provides multinationals with the advantage of sharing the costs and risks that international expansion implies.
Fast-food industry relies on low-paid work, part-time workers and standardization. This employment system results in high labor turnover which prevents unionization. The routine of the tasks which affects workers supports the low-salary and low-commitment employment strategy in the fast-food industry. A study carried out in 1999 showed that 72% of the fast-food employees worked part-time. Most of the fast-food employees have no intention of staying in the industry for long and are not interested in being promoted.
However, the hamburger industry has seen a slow growth due to the competition from family restaurants. As something new was needed to revive sales, hamburger chains have diversified their menus, adding salad bars, chicken, roast beef and fish. As they all target higher market shares, fast-food restaurants seem ready to come with new strategies to attract customers.