Web Exclusive | August 2013 | By Margarette Burnette

Fine to Fast

Dennis Friedman joins growing list of fine-dining chefs entering the fast-casual space.

Executive chef Dennis Friedman is a classically trained culinary artist and owner of Newton’s Table, a popular fine-dining restaurant in Bethesda, Maryland. Later this summer, he’ll open a new restaurant dedicated to his restaurant’s most popular dish, the noodle-inspired Fuzu, in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle.

But Newton’s Noodles will be a little different than its sister concept: The restaurant will feed the masses in a fast-casual format.

“Fuzu is our most popular dish. It’s what draws the customers in, and they keep coming back for it,” Friedman says. “I’ve been doing it for over 10 years.”

Friedman is one of several fine-dining chefs who have decided to give the fast-casual world a whirl. Fine-dining giants like Rick Bayless, Tom Colicchio, and Richard Blais now populate the category.

Chefs with a fine-dining background provide credibility when they open a fast-casual establishment, Friedman says. Such concepts also give customers the sense that they’re getting a good deal.

“You have what may have cost $100 a person and you can get a sample for $8 a person,” he says. “The restaurant already has curb appeal.”

Juelene Beck, a chain restaurant industry consultant in Cape Corral, Florida, says fine-dining chefs who shift their attention to fast-casual concepts often find an eager public ready to try their limited-service dishes.

“The idea of introducing a slightly more sophisticated food relative to the palate is a very smart thing to do,” she says.

“You have what may have cost $100 a person and you can get a sample for $8 a person. The restaurant already has curb appeal.”

In order to scale the business to accommodate higher volume, successful restaurant owners have to be able to tweak their processes to make them as streamlined as possible, she says. The operator has to make sure instructions for the staff are simple and easy to understand, without too much room for improvisation. There have to be set methods for how ingredients are stored, prepared, and served so staffers can get tasks right each time, she says.

“The standards should be plain and concise so that there are fewer chances for mistakes,” Beck says.

Not every fine-dining menu item can translate into a fast-casual environment, Beck says. It is important that chefs who are considering making the transition do their research and make sure their food choices can scale.

Newton’s Noodles shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Noodles have proved to be a popular fast-casual choice, as evidenced by Noodles & Company’s growing success. Fuzu also fits with consumer trends in that it is a customizable noodle plate. Diners can choose among proteins, vegetables, toppings, sauces, and spices to build their own Fuzu dish. They can also order the Signature Fuzu, which has shrimp, scallops, chicken, egg, carrots, snow peas, onions, bean sprouts, scallions, crispy shallots, and black sesame.

Along with the Signature Fuzu plate, Newton’s Noodles will serve noodle-free dishes, including Ahi Tuna Bites, Kapow Chicken, and Beef-Filled Wontons. The dessert menu will include Pattycake, a signature rum cake from Friedman’s wife, Patty.

Newton’s Noodles will also incorporate a new utensil, the Chork, which is a fork that splits into chopsticks.

Beck says gourmet burgers and tacos are other food items that transition well between fine-dining and fast-casual environments.

Rick Ortiz is putting that theory to test. The chef has worked at fine-dining establishments overseas and in Illinois, and last year, he opened the fast-casual restaurant Antique Taco in Chicago with his wife, Ashley. It serves authentic Mexican food, with several signature two-taco plates, including the Market Mushroom, Pork Carnitas, and Grilled Ribeye tacos.

Ortiz credits his background with giving him the discipline necessary to ensure success in a fast-casual world.

“[Fine dining] gives you the drive to come up with something new,” he says. Once a concept idea is born, he says, it’s also important to find good employees and make communication a priority to ensure everyone is on the same page when it comes to how the restaurant operates. “You have to have the right people,” he says.
Given the popularity of Fuzu and its success at Newton’s Table, Friedman says, he believes Newton’s Noodles will tap an unmet need and can eventually scale into multiple units.

“There is a way that everything can be consistent, fresh, and good,” he says. “Put it all together and it has everything you need for a recipe for success.”