Fast Food Nation

Cheap urgers, fries and the the drive-through window are taking the place of sit-down dining

People change their habits when times are tough, and these days that can mean switching from a sit-down restaurant to the drive-through.

Is the recession driving consumers to the fast-food window?  Ralph Rubio likes to think so as he introduces his latest invention: a cheeseburger in a taco.

"It's a fun thing," Rubio said. "We're going to have it here for a couple months -- give it a try -- and we'll see what happens."

Rubio said his fast, casual dining is doing more than tapping into new tastes -- it's offering fast casual food at a price people can live with.

"I think what people are realizing is that they can get the quality and the flavor that you can get at a full-service casual dining restaurant for half the price," Rubio said.

Rubio's and other fast-food restaurants are doing better at the cash register than many big-time restaurant chains.

"Sort of [upper-end] casual restaurant sit-down -- those guys are hurting, because that customer has traded down to fast food," said retail-management consultant George Whalin.

San Diego-based Jack in the Box, for instance, is seeing more people coming through the door as consumers look for lower prices. A recent survey showed that about one-third of people are cutting back on eating out, but 28 percent said they are still going out but are seeking out cheaper alternatives.

Rubio said more people are buying the daily or manager's specials. Also on the upswing: coupon use and trawling the Web for online deals. For example, on Rubio's Web site, you can get a coupon for a free taco in exchange for posting a picture.

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