The story of the future of the foodservice industry starts with a man, a man who trained to become a chef, a chef who wanted to do things differently. Or maybe it was that all he could afford to do was something different. But in his first restaurant, different is what he did: different service format, different ingredients, different sourcing partners, different idea of what was possible outside of the fine-dining arena.
And so it was when his first restaurant opened in Denver—different. But different worked. One restaurant became two. Two restaurants became 1,400. A simple burrito shop founded in 1993 with a loan from the chef’s parents became a $2.7 billion chain that had feasted on the country’s hunger for something different from traditional fast food and helped create a wholly new—different—restaurant category.
The story of Chipotle and its founder, Steve Ells—the story of how he left his job at the iconic Stars restaurant in San Francisco to re-create what was happening at the taquerias in that city’s Mission District and, in essence, sow the seeds for what would become the fast-casual industry—etches itself more firmly into fast-food lore with the launch of every upstart fast-casual disciple, the shift of every quick-service trend toward something more fresh, premium, authentic. But in today’s limited-service environment, it’s not just the explosion of fast casual and its seemingly boundless potential that can be traced back to Chipotle’s conception. Ells’ decision, as a chef, to enter the limited-service world also established a precedent for a new crop of classically trained chefs who are now revolutionizing the foodservice world by delivering high-quality, innovative foods to the masses in fast-casual environments.
“The fast-casual sector is the best sector to [scale] because we reach the most people,” says Jeremy Barlow, founder of Nashville-based sandwich concept Sloco and former chef and owner at fine-dining restaurant Tayst. “Fine dining is cool, fine dining is groovy; that’s where the cool chefs are, people who are covered in tattoos—I’m one of them—and that’s what the Food Network likes to portray, and that’s what all the shows are on, and it captures people’s attention. But it’s a small part of the market. Fast casual is a huge chunk of the food dollars, and a huge chunk of the population.”
Independent chefs like Barlow are coming to that realization, but so are some high-profile chefs with James Beard awards, TV appearances, and heavy financial sway under their belts. Danny Meyer dove in with Shake Shack. Rick Bayless with Xoco, Tortas Frontera, and Frontera Fresco. Richard Blais opened a collection of FLIP Burgers in Atlanta, while his “Top Chef” peer Spike Mendelsohn is preparing to franchise his Good Stuff Eatery around the country. Michael Voltaggio, Art Smith, Bobby Flay—the list of fine-dining chefs who have dipped their toes into the waters of fast casual grows by the day. Most recently, Jose Andres announced his intention to open a quick-service concept in the near future.
Their motives aren’t all the same. Bayless, for example, initially opened Xoco because the space next to his two full-service restaurants was available and he didn’t want to cannibalize the full-service business. Today, he’s only opening additional fast-casual locations on an opportunity-by-opportunity basis, as was the case when Bon Appétit Management Company recently asked him to open at the University of Pennsylvania. Meyer launched Shake Shack because a real estate opportunity in Madison Square Park intrigued him, and though he and his Union Square Hospitality Group have maintained that they only want to grow methodically and as opportunities present themselves, momentum has clearly picked up now that 27 Shake Shacks are open around the world. Mendelsohn, meanwhile, has made known his intentions to build Good Stuff Eatery into a prominent national chain, while Bradley Ogden, the James Beard–winning chef and proprietor of Bradley Ogden Hospitality, was attracted to the opportunity of serving his foods to a mass audience when he opened his fast-casual chicken concept, Funky Chicken, in Houston with his son Bryan.
“I think you sort of have to go with the trend setters, but also the market is that people want to go out and dine, but they have more of a limited budget,” Ogden says. “In the whole aspect of casual dining these days, it’s not just trendy, it’s sort of the whole economical aspect of it. … It can transcend a variety of different locations. It could be in airports, it could be in shopping centers like we’re doing, in little boutique areas in a community where people just live and dine.”
No matter their motives, it’s clear from the success of these brands and the kind of exposure they drum up in the national media that customers are eager to try buzz-worthy and higher-quality limited-service concepts with branding connected to respected, recognizable figures.
“A fast-casual brand run by a fine-dining chef allows consumers to have a memorable experience more frequently,” says Mike Pruitt, president and CEO of Chanticleer Holdings, an operating holding company that owns a stake in several foodservice brands, as well as the rights to develop a fast-casual concept spun off of Chef John Tesar’s award-winning Dallas restaurant, Spoon Bar & Kitchen. “Also, the rise of fine-dining personalities in the media is very appealing to consumers—seeing a chef like John Tesar on ‘Top Chef’ reinforces his brand, and many consumers want to try his take on food, yet not everyone can go to Dallas and have that experience at Spoon Bar & Kitchen. With a fast-casual concept, more people will be able to try his unique style of food and his brand.”
One of the earliest fine-dining restaurant operators to invest in the fast-casual space was Craft Restaurants, owned by renowned chef and “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio. The company opened the sandwich shop ’wichcraft in New York City in 2003 and has since expanded it to 17 locations in New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas.
Jeffrey Zurofsky, CEO of ’wichcraft, says that with no comparable concept open at the time—the term fast casual barely even existed—the team at Craft wanted to open a restaurant that could serve a quick, inexpensive meal with premium ingredients. Using the same standards and techniques that made Craft one of New York’s premier fine-dining establishments, ’wichcraft was born.
“The main thing was all of the technique and all of the values and principles of what we did in our fine-dining restaurants were really important to communicate into the sandwich,” Zurofsky says. “So Craft between two slices of bread: It was not only the cooking techniques, which no one else was doing, [but also] nothing was processed, we did everything by hand ourselves, and everything made in our central commissary was done by chefs who had been trained and worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and three- and four-starred New York Times restaurants. That was the way to translate a lot of what
Craft stood for.”
’wichcraft’s menu includes upscale items like a Vegetable Frittata with seasonal vegetables for breakfast and the Grilled Flank Steak and Heritage Smoked Ham sandwiches for lunch. Zurofsky says the company doesn’t just source premium ingredients and then throw them in a sandwich; all ingredients are prepared with a chef’s expertise, such as the pork, which is slow-roasted overnight as it would be in a fine-dining setting.
Where ’wichcraft and most other chef-operated brands split from fast-casual trends is that they don’t allow patrons to customize their dishes by walking down an ingredient line.
“Our intention was to make unique combinations, unique menu items, and to some degree—not that we think our customers are incapable of doing this—we think that people are interested in coming to us because they trusted our sense of what combinations worked,” Zurofsky says. “We didn’t want to necessarily give people the choices to put everything together in a sandwich and potentially be disappointed if it didn’t work out.”