The saying goes that history repeats itself. That might be the case today in the limited-service restaurant industry, as one of the world’s oldest foods, street food, has again risen to prominence in the U.S., with everything from Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches to Italian piadas finding success among American consumers.
But really, street food’s popularity might not be so much history repeating itself; rather, street food may be following an old adage long attributed to Mark Twain: “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” That’s because foods traditionally served by street vendors all over the world are not, in strict terms, taking off in U.S. streets (food trucks notwithstanding). They are instead taking root in the fast-casual restaurant industry.
The term street food, of course, lends itself to multiple interpretations. While food trucks in the U.S. take advantage of certain street food qualities—serving food on the street chief among them—the truck movement has also been able to leverage high-tech equipment and high-profile trendiness in urban markets to serve any number of culinary creations from a street-side location. Experts interviewed for this story say that traditional street food dished out in other countries is simple, handheld fare that is typically light on number of ingredients but big on flavor.
Melissa Abbott, senior director of culinary insights at The Hartman Group, says these traits make the U.S. fast-casual industry a great gateway for traditional street foods from around the world.
“Fast casual is the perfect platform because what the foodservice operator can do is really leverage … comfort and familiarity that is going to allow the customer to feel like, ‘OK, this isn’t going to be a total waste of my time if I don’t like it,’” she says. “Consumers want things that are less homogenized. They’re not just [wanting] salt, sugar, and fat. And street food really helps to deliver that.”
The fast-casual industry might also be a perfect partner because it is not only a laboratory of foodservice development—foods once reserved for fine dining and mom and pop shops are now being scaled into national fast-casual brands—but it’s also the one part of the restaurant industry that’s seeing any kind of traffic growth. According to market research firm The NPD Group, traffic at fast-casual restaurants increased 8 percent in the 12 months ending November 2013, while all other categories were essentially flat.
And as Americans increasingly gravitate to ethnic foods—a January 2013 report from Mintel found that ethnic foods were an $8.7 billion industry and were expected to grow 20.3 percent between 2012 and 2017—the risk for operators who want to introduce global street foods to a U.S. audience decreases.
Michael Heyne is one such operator. The cofounder and CEO of Austin, Texas–based VERTS conceived his fast-casual brand with business partner and fellow Germany native Dominik Stein in 2008 when the pair were getting their MBAs at the University of Texas and discovered that the U.S. had virtually no outlets serving their favorite German street food growing up: kebabs.
While German kebabs are traditionally served out of restaurant windows that back up to busy shopping streets and plazas, Heyne says, the limited walkability of the U.S., especially in Texas, encouraged him and Stein to develop the brand as a brick-and-mortar concept.
“When you say you want a nice restaurant, the ones that have a cool fast-food space are fast casual here, and of course you think of Chipotle, Pei Wei, and in this direction,” Heyne says. “We thought that’s what we needed to have in the U.S., to get attraction so people actually notice us. They wouldn’t notice us if we just put a little stand somewhere. It would probably work, but it would take way too long. So we wanted to open a real restaurant.”
VERTS’ menu is designed around the doner kebab, which was originally a Turkish street food and includes meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie, vegetables, and sauces in a folded-up flatbread. Kebabs at VERTS are available in regular and snack sizes, and the restaurant also offers wraps and salad bowls. Customers choose between chicken and a beef/lamb mixture for their meat, and there are fresh vegetables and five house-made sauce options.
Heyne says the point of the kebab and street food in general is to be very simple and mobile. To illustrate that point and take advantage of the food-truck craze, VERTS launched the “world’s smallest food truck” in 2011: a Smart car built out with an entire VERTS kitchen. “So you can make the food in a very small way, in a very efficient way,” Heyne says. “All the stands in German are incredibly small; if you reach a certain quality level, then customers start with their expectations. So we have a fancy version of the street food.”
Nick Spondike, executive chef and director of R&D for Kronos Foods, a foodservice developer that provides Mediterranean foods and flavors to the industry, echoes Heyne in pointing to simplicity as the primary hallmark of street foods from around the world.
“Simplicity doesn’t mean it’s easy to make, but by that I mean that typically under the confines of street food … you’re not going to have a menu that will have 25 or 30 main dishes,” Spondike says. “Instead, you’re going to find some core items—three, six, maybe eight core items that are going to be done to the utmost perfection.”
Simplicity is indeed a selling point at Asian Box, a Palo Alto, California–based brand founded by FK Restaurants & Hospitality that touts street foods from nations like Vietnam and Thailand as its menu influence. The primary menu item is a compostable box filled with a customer’s choice of rice, noodles, or vegetable salad; one of five proteins; steamed or wok-tossed vegetables; one or more sauce; and “toppers” like bean sprouts, peanuts, or an egg.
Frank Klein, president and CEO of Asian Box, says the restaurants have open kitchens and communicate the street food quality of the menu by focusing on “minimally processed, quickly cooked, flavorful food cooked in front of somebody.”
“Our stores don’t have walk-ins, we have standup refrigerators,” Klein says. “We order produce and proteins every day. For me, the reason we did street food was because it’s a very fresh, healthy, direct, and transparent way to cook food. Back in the day, the original sustainable restaurants are street vendors: You buy your food, you prep it, you cook it right in front of your customer, you sell it, and when it’s done, it’s done.”