Menu Innovations | February 2011 | By Barney Wolf

Trickle-Down Theory

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The menu’s eight regular salads range in price from $7.95 to $11.75. Customers can also design their own salads with a set number of toppings for $6.95. Proteins and premium items cost extra.

Among the toppings are roasted zucchini, toasted pumpkin seeds, jicama, soba noodles, caramelized onions, marinated tofu, and green papaya. The restaurants also offer five varieties of cheese and freshly made dressings.

Many other formally trained chefs have started fast-casual restaurants that feature high-quality menus, presented attractively in contemporary settings—a move that experts say was probably fueled by the bad economy.

“Fast casual is the one segment that has seen traffic growth,” NPD’s Riggs says.

Some operators may also want to emulate CIA grad Steve Ells, who grew Chipotle from one unit in Denver in 1993 to more than 1,000 nationwide.

Ells’ idea was to use high-quality, fresh ingredients in burritos, which were cooked on site in an open kitchen, complete with fine-dining staples like stovetops, pots, pans, knives, and whisks.

“From the beginning, those elements were part of the restaurant,” says Chipotle communications director Chris Arnold.

In recent years, the company focused on the issue of sustainability, committing to use organic and locally produced food when possible. Its naturally raised meat is the kind “often found in fine-dining places,” Arnold says.

Mike Hoque saw an opportunity to bring fresh fish to the quick-service world, so the Dallas Fish Market founder launched the fast-casual seafood house Fish Express.

Fish “is the toughest thing to do in Texas,” he says. “Here, they think fried catfish is seafood. So people thought I was nuts to try this concept.”

Hoque says Fish Express is helping to train consumers to eat fish by offering dishes such as grilled salmon, fish tacos, burgers made of shrimp and fish, shrimp and oyster po’ boys, and salads topped with seafood.

The grilled fish is $11, but most of the other items cost less than $8.50.

The use of premium ingredients extends to the fast-growing world of mobile dining, including Dim and Den Sum, a popular, locally sourced gourmet food truck serving chow with an Asian twist in Cleveland.

Formally trained chef and owner Chris Hodgson features a regular menu, but creates special items depending on availability of seasonal ingredients. Offerings can range from pigs feet burgers to foie gras tater tots.

“The goal was to bring a quality product to the masses at a more reasonable price point. You still can have great food without breaking the bank.”

“Last year we were able to get truffles, so we shaved truffles on everything,” he says. Another time, he and friends went to the woods and hunted for ramps, which he used in several menu items.

Hodgson tries to keep prices as reasonable as possible—often $6 or less—because of his experience working in white tablecloth restaurants. “None of my friends could ever come in to eat anything I made,” he says. “It was just too expensive.”

Other companies and entrepreneurs are trying to bring upscale ethnic cuisine to consumers in a quick-service setting. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, for instance, migrated some of its menu items to its fast-casual creation, Pei Wei Asian Dinner.

Italian fare is important at one of the nation’s first fast-casual restaurants, Wolfgang Puck Express, which was launched in 1991 by the chain’s namesake celebrity chef. Many recipes came from Puck’s fine-dining places.

“It was a completely different type of operation,” says Joe Essa, president of Wolfgang Puck Worldwide. “The goal was to bring a quality product to the masses at a more reasonable price point. You still can have great food without breaking the bank.”

The chain’s open-kitchen design is now a mainstay of the fast-casual movement.

At the chain’s 41 locations, the pizza dough is the same used in Puck’s fine-dining restaurants. But the similarities don’t stop there; the chain also offers several staples from his fine-dining operations, such as the margherita and pepperoni pizzas, four-cheese ravioli, and the Chinois Chicken Salad.

Other celebrity chefs followed Puck into limited service, including Bobby Flay (Bobby’s Burger Palace) and Rick Bayless (xoco).

Although food ideas normally trickle down from fine dining to other restaurant sectors, there is now considerable cross-pollination. It’s become just as typical for ideas to trickle up, says Thomas J. Macrina, chairman of the American Academy of Chefs.

“Just look at the decision by the quick-service guys to remove trans fats from their menus, plus all the technological innovations they’ve made,” says Macrina, who is also executive chef at the Desmond Great Valley Hotel and Conference Center in Malvern, Pennsylvania.

Consumers are accustomed to choosing several small items—a burger, fries, and even dessert—at a quick-service meal, so it’s no surprise that small plates and mini-desserts are hot at many popular full-service restaurants, he says.

CIA associate dean Barnes also sees signs of the trickle-up theory.

“People are craving things not found in fine dining,” he says. “The fast-casual places in particular make delicious and attractive food, which has been at the core of what fine-dining restaurants have always done. That’s a big change.”

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