Jenny Cho, co-owner of Craft Sushi, completes a spicy tuna roll. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“Fast-casual” restaurants started becoming increasingly common and popular well before the pandemic, but between COVID-19 and the evolving labor market, they have proliferated in Springfield in recent years.

As consumers continue to look for a quick, convenient way to buy a meal in a post-pandemic world, and employers are searching for models that require minimal labor amid rising prices, “fast-casual” has become an increasingly viable option for restauranteurs.

“There are customers here in Springfield every day that want these types of offerings,” said Amanda Ohlensehlen, the director of economic vitality for the City of Springfield. “We have a higher than the US average kind of market potential for breakfast and lunch establishments…There’s a demand for this, people are still spending money, going out. They’re looking for different dining options.”

Small businesses, local developers and corporations have a hand in Springfield’s restaurant growth

Springfield’s growing fast casual — and fast food — restaurant scene is a diverse playing field, with small businesses, local developers introducing out-of-state chains and corporations all bringing something new and convenient to the metro’s commuter-heavy clientele. 

James Tillman, the owner of Tillman Investments LLC and founder of Complete Electrical Solutions, has long been successful in Springfield real estate, owning dozens of buildings, including a few that house restaurants.

“I knew the potential of the restaurant business because I also get (profit and loss statements) from some of these restaurants,” he said. 

His first restaurant ownership experience came as a result of him being a majority investor of FD’s Grillhouse. In addition to being a partial investor in other local restaurants, Tillman is the owner of seven First Watch locations, including the two in Springfield. 

He is now seeking to bring another new fast-casual restaurant, Huey Magoo’s, a chicken tender chain based in Orlando, to the Springfield area. There are two locations confirmed, including one on East Sunshine in Springfield and one in Ozark, with more in the works.

Michael and Jenny Cho, the co-owners of Craft Sushi, saw the potential in their fast-casual concept that was met with enough success at their flagship location on Sunshine Street for them to open a second one on Republic Road.

Michael, who has a wealth of experience in the restaurant industry, has seen Springfield’s collective “food knowledge” grow and begin to mirror national trends since he moved here from New York in 2002.

“[Fast-casual] is the most dynamic sector of our industry right now,” he said. “I think that just kind of reflects people’s tastes.”

Jenny Cho, Co-owner of Craft Sushi, finishes up rolling the sushi before putting on the toppings. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

New local restaurants adapts to serve those that want a dine-in “experience” or a quick meal

Vicki Pratt, the senior vice president of economic development at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that it’s difficult to analyze how independently owned restaurants are impacted by the fast-casual boom which has been, in part, driven by corporate chains. 

Independent restaurants often, although not always, present themselves as a “destination,” or a place for people to spend some time, spend some money and have a dining out “experience,” ultimately targeting a completely different audience than fast-casual restaurants.

“I think there’s real segmentation happening in that dining out experience,” Pratt said. “And I think we’re going to see more of that over time.”

John Chace, the owner of The Dive on Patton, a new restaurant, dive bar and live music venue that opened in downtown Springfield, is implementing some fast casual aspects into his concept, with a walk-up window and expanded kitchen hours.

While Chace emphasized the need for his business to pivot and be flexible, he said that “opportunity” was the primary reason for those features, as the kitchen is conveniently located in the front of the building, adjacent to the sidewalk.

By having a walk-up window that will be accessible even when the bar is closed, he is adding a whole new customer base that would’ve otherwise primarily served a dine-in clientele.

Even with the opportunity and flexibility the kitchen will provide his businesses, he still thinks there are plenty of customers who will choose to sit down in his establishment. Despite the adverse impact the pandemic initially had on restaurants, he has noticed a shift in recent years as people have emphasized the need to support small businesses.

The Dive on Patton, located at 313 S. Patton in downtown Springfield. (Photo by Jack McGee)

Ultimately, Chace thinks the recent influx of fast casual and fast food chains in Springfield will have a minimal impact on independent restaurants, because they will eventually no longer be the “shiny new object.”

“People will try and back out to the places they know and enjoy,” he said. “…There’s always going to be something, in some way, shape or form that affects food and beverage.”

While Cho acknowledged that, as the owner of a small business, he might not have the same resources and marketing advantages of larger chains, he is optimistic about what he sees as a growing effort to support locally-owned businesses.

“If there’s somebody that worked before the pandemic, it will come back around,” he said. “People still love to dine out, people love being catered to and people love good food.”

However, he still sees a degree of uncertainty going forward. 

“It’s a different rhythm entirely,” Cho said. “And we’re not quite sure what it’s going to look like a year from now because, I’m telling you, the landscape is different than it was even six months ago.”

‘Good advertising,’ ‘healthy’ food and convenience all help fuel fast-casual’s growth

Pratt acknowledged that while the pandemic was still playing a role in some consumers’ wariness about eating out, the convenience aspect of fast-casual restaurants is a key to their success.

“There’s just a lot of people that are all about convenience,” Pratt said. “…There’s still a growth in that particular industry sector of people just having very busy families, people having very busy lives and maybe four days, five days out of seven, they do not have time to make a meal and sit everybody down.”

Additionally, some of the growing fast-casual chains have leaned into a consumer demand for healthier options.

“A lot of it is fueled by very good advertising on the part of that industry sector and the businesses in that industry sector where they are convincing people that this is better food for them than your traditional version of fast food,” Pratt said.

Tillman has noticed this trend happening as well, with the success of his First Watch locations and planned Huey Magoo’s locations, both recognized as being potentially “healthier” options than some of their fast-food counterparts.

A mock-up of the Huey Magoo’s location planned for 5402 N. 23rd St. in Ozark. (Photo provided by Lisa Tillman)

First Watch promotes itself for its fresh ingredients and has an accompanying “Healthier Side” menu. Huey Magoo’s, meanwhile, dubs itself the “filet mignon of chicken,” and claims to serve quality, all-natural chicken, with no antibiotics, hormones, preservatives or steroids.

“When I found Huey Magoo’s, I knew it had to have a healthy choice,” Tillman said. “That’s something that we have there at Huey Magoo’s over the Raising Cane’s or possibly the Zaxby’s…We have the salad, grilled chicken, lettuce wraps. There’s some other options, some good options, besides just the hand-breaded chicken.”

Craft Sushi similarly promotes themselves as having “fresh and honest ingredients” in a fast-casual setting.

“I think that these restaurants that you’re seeing pop up, here in town and nationwide kind of reflects that desire that people have – to eat well, but to do it quickly,” Cho said.

A research report from market research company Technavio mirrors what both Tillman and Cho have strived to offer customers, while also posing it as a potential challenge for prospective business owners.

Fast-casual concept offers opportunity for employers amid a tight labor market

Pratt also suggested that fast-casual restaurants weren’t only adapting for the customers, but for themselves. Amid a tight labor market that has been especially difficult on the restaurant industry, the fast-casual concept offers an opportunity for businesses to operate with a potentially smaller staff.

“The reality is, if you are an establishment where people do not have to come in, that’s a whole group of workers that you don’t need,” Pratt said. “So you’re going to be able to get the food out, get it out at a price that people are willing to pay and there’s a whole group of people that you don’t have to pay.”

Even so, Tillman said he expects each Huey Magoo’s location to employ about 75 people at first, and potentially decrease to 40 or 50 as efficiency improves.

Despite the problems other restaurants have faced in attracting and retaining labor, Tillman said his two original managers from his first First Watch location are still with him.

“If you take care of your employees, if you’re good to your employees, they’ll stick with you,” he said.

Ohlensehlen said that because the region’s population is growing, prospective employers might see promise in finding talent and filling open positions if they were to  set up shop in Springfield.

“Based on our population growth, that indicates that we are a vibrant city…[We have] the employment base to support new chains or even independent restaurants to open up,” she said.

The Republic Whataburger opened in December 2022. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Market outlooks project big growth in fast-casual industry in years ahead

The fast-casual restaurant scene is nothing new. It has seen considerable growth in the past couple of decades, but the pandemic helped spur some new reasons for its continued growth in the years ahead.

Technavio projected that, between 2021 and 2026, the fast-casual industry would have a compound annual growth rate of 12.41 percent and increase by $186.27 billion globally, with 44 percent of that growth expected to occur in North America.

While not exclusively applicable to fast-casual establishments, Ohlensehlen said that the number of restaurant licenses issued in Springfield returned to pre-pandemic levels (55 in 2019) in 2022, with 54 licenses issued. 11 have already been issued through Feb. 27 of 2023. 

She said the growing local market continues to see more demand for affordable dining that are more sit-down oriented, which often includes fast-casual restaurants.

“I think the market demonstrates that people are seeking new options,” Ohlensehlen said.

The Springfield area has welcomed numerous new fast-casual and fast food restaurants in the past several years, many of which came – are yet to come – post-COVID:

  • Beef-A-Roo
    • 1411 W. Kearney St. Springfield, Mo. 65803
  • Chicken Salad Chick
    • 1322 E. Battlefield Rd. Springfield, Mo. 65804
  • Craft Sushi
    • 1251 E. Sunshine St. Springfield, Mo. 65804
    • 1282 E. Republic Rd. Springfield, Mo. 65804
  • Crumbl Cookies (Springfield franchise in “beginning stages,” exact location not confirmed)
  • Huey Magoo’s (planned locations, not yet open)
    • 3352 E. Sunshine St. Springfield, Mo. 65804
    • 5402 N. 23rd St. Ozark, Mo. 65721
  • First Watch
    • 2946 S. National Ave. Springfield, Mo. 65804
    • 3103 E. Sunshine St. Springfield, Mo. 65804
  • MacCheesy’s
    • 1920 E. Independence St. Springfield, Mo. 65804
  • Raising Cane’s
    • 312 W. Sunshine St. Springfield, Mo. 65807
  • Red’s Giant Hamburg
    • 2301 W. Sunshine St. Springfield, Mo. 65807
  • Simple Simon’s Pizza (planned location, not yet open)
    • 1317 W. Sunshine St. Springfield, Mo. 65807
  • Whataburger (two locations, more to follow)
    • 1371 US-60 Republic, Mo. 65738
    • 1851 W. Marler Lane, Ozark, Mo. 65721

In addition, numerous fast food chains that had already established a presence in Springfield have added new locations in recent years as well.

If there are any new fast-casual restaurants that have opened in Springfield in recent years, but were not included in this list, send them to

Employees at Craft Sushi are making Poke Bowls for customers. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Jack McGee

Jack McGee is the business and economic development reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. He previously covered politics and elections for the Citizen. Before that, he worked at documentary film company Carbon Trace Productions and Missouri State University’s student-led newspaper, The Standard. He’s an MSU graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism and a minor political science. Reach him at or (417) 719-5129. More by Jack McGee