Menu Innovations | August 2013 | By Barney Wolf

Flavors of the World

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Ethnic and pizza restaurants offer customizable menus to quick serve customers.
Technomic’s Darren Tristano says giving customers the ability to customize dishes creates a health halo “because diners see that they’re eating something fresh.” thinkstockphotos.com
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Another take on Italian cuisine is offered at Piada, which features build-your-own, tortilla-like flatbread piadas, bowls with freshly cooked angel hair pasta, and chopped salads. These are topped with a grilled ingredient, veggies, and a sauce. “We are a chef-driven company, and our line is filled with a lot of fresh ingredients [and] fresh vegetables. That is conveyed to the diners,” says Jamy Bolling, corporate chef and partner for the three-year-old, 10-unit chain based in Columbus, Ohio.

Among the grilled items are chicken, Italian sausage, salmon, steak, and calamari. There are hot and cold sauces, from the red pomodoro and spicy diavolo to red pepper and fresh basil pestos, along with 18 toppings, such as artichokes and eggplant caponata.

As with other build-your-own-style restaurants, Piada encourages interaction between the crew and customers to help diners understand which ingredients go together.

“We want our team to treat people like they’re guests at home,” Bolling says. “We put together a chef’s menu on cards to try to guide them, but we also want our staff to help walk people through the line, suggesting combinations or talking about their favorites.”

Helping customers choose ingredients is even more important at Mediterranean assembly-line restaurants, where some items are not familiar to some Americans.

When Roti Mediterranean Grill launched in Chicago in 2007, the idea was to “take this type of food and put it in this format that is really resonating with consumers,” says marketing director Peter Nolan.

Like other create-a-meal restaurants, Roti, which has 17 units in three markets, features several entrée options: a sandwich with pita pocket or laffa wrap, a rice plate with three sides, or a salad.

Chicken or steak shawarma (meat on a spit), falafel, or roasted vegetables are added, plus any of five sauces (including tahini and the secret house S’hug spicy sauce), sides like couscous, and toppings such as Feta cheese and olives.

Roti offers set menu items that many first-timers try, Nolan says, in case they don’t know much beyond hummus and pitas. “They can be confused if they aren’t familiar with Mediterranean food, so this is a safe haven. The next time they may experiment.”

This type of cuisine also works well “because the Mediterranean diet is very popular in today’s environment,” says Bob Bafundo, vice president of company and franchise operations at Denver-based Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill.

“There’s a mixture of fresh vegetables, fruits and grains, and salads and sauces,” he says. “Variety is built into the Mediterranean diet, and our menu allows you to choose a little of this or that, giving people a balance of proteins and grains.”

Most customers select the create-your-own entrée options, selecting from among a white or wheat pita, laffa, or a plate with sides. There are seven proteins, including shawarmas, falafel, and hummus. As Garbanzo has grown to 21 units in six states since 2008, it has changed or added some items, including the rollout of kabobs last year and replacement of one sauce that did not appeal broadly with the better-known Greek tzatziki sauce.

Chipotle’s Ells has said the build-your-own model can work with various cuisines, and he has taken that notion to the Asian category with the company’s creation of ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, which features flavors from China, Thailand, and other nations in that region. But even before ShopHouse launched its first unit in 2011, some other create-your-own restaurants featuring Asian flavors had sprouted up.

Sushi concept How Do You Roll? got its start in Austin, Texas, in 2008 after cofounder Yuen Yung had 30 minutes for lunch and wanted sushi but couldn’t find any place serving it quickly.

The company now has 12 units in four states.

Unlike the typical build-your-own concept, where customers pay at the end of the line, How Do You Roll? starts with the sales station. Customers get a ticket with their order and take it to one of several rolling stations, where a chef creates the sushi roll, bowl, or cone.

“The high sellers are tuna and salmon, then shrimp,” Yung says. “It doesn’t matter where you are, those are universal. Chicken and beef fall right behind those.” The number of guests who opt for vegetarian rolls or bowls continues to grow, he says.

Food inspired by the Indian subcontinent is behind the cuisine at Merzi, a Washington, D.C., restaurant that opened in 2010. “It is a very healthful, flavorful cuisine that is more of a European-Indian style,” says Qaiser Kazmi, the eatery’s founder.

Guests first choose a base (balsamic rice bowl, flatbread naan bowl, roti wrap, warm vegetables, or romaine lettuce), and then a protein (grilled or rotisserie chicken, beef, or lamb) that determines the entrée’s price. Next are sauces and chutneys.

“There are some ingredients that may not go well together, so it’s important that our employees know what works and what doesn’t,” Kazmi says. “If someone chooses a wrap and wants a lot of sauce, that could be a problem because it will leak.”

Asian Box is a newer entry, having opened its first unit last year. With influences from Vietnam and Thailand, the three-unit, San Francisco–area chain makes most items from scratch and gets many ingredients from local farmers.

“Ours is like a Vietnamese street stall,” says chief executive Frank Klein, who comes from a full-service restaurant background. “We don’t keep anything in steam trays because we don’t believe Asian food holds well.”

The name comes from the way an entrée is built: in a box. It begins with brown or jasmine rice, Asian vegetables, or chilled rice noodles, followed by a spiced meat or tofu. It’s then finished with toppings and sauces, including tamarind vinaigrette and sriracha.

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