Industry News | May 25, 2010

Fast Casual Sees a Spike in the Good Stuff

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Spike Mendelsohn is a busy man. On top of growing one fast-casual concept and opening another, the former Top Chef star recently released a cookbook and helped sponsor a contest that supported the cleanliness solutions of an independent operator.

Mendelsohn was on hand at the 2010 National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago to present an award to the winner of the Dawn Professional “Make Your Restaurant Shine” contest, Martha Bralkowsi, owner of Jordan’s Bar and Grill in Ridgway, Pennsylvania.

“I actually started as a dishwasher out back of my parents’ restaurant, so I know the trials and tribulations of a restaurant, and I know the differences of using a bad product from using a good product, because I did it myself,” Mendelsohn says.

“One of the most important things in the restaurant business is presentation and cleanliness of your restaurant. … I equip my chefs with the best ingredients to make the best food, I should equip everyone in my restaurant to be able to get the best product.”

Bralkowski won $20,000 for store renovations, a free consultation with Mendelsohn at her restaurant, and a trip for four to the NRA Show.

But Mendelsohn wasn’t just handing a check over to the winner of the Dawn Professional contest at the NRA Show. He also had a book signing for The Good Stuff Cookbook, his first foray into the published recipe realm, and a cooking demonstration at the show.

Mendelsohn has made a splash on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., as the owner and operator of the Good Stuff Eatery, a fast-casual concept that specializes in the Americana combination of burgers, fries, and milkshakes.

“I put my own twist on the brand and make available to everyone 100 percent of America,” Mendelsohn says.

“I have a great price point—it’s cheap. Anyone can come into our restaurant and enjoy the food. I applied certain techniques to the way we built our burger, the way we cook our meat, and the flavoring to balance all that stuff, because it really makes a difference. That’s what I applied from my fine-dining experience.”

Mendelsohn was formally trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and later went on to work in renowned Restaurant Les Crayeres in Reims, France, as well as with Thomas Keller at Bouchon Restaurant in Napa Valley.

He earned his notoriety in 2008 on Top Chef: Chicago, the same year he opened Good Stuff Eatery.

“From all of my experiences, I really learned how to run a business and how to build a restaurant, and now I’m really able to put that into play in a fast-casual way,” Mendelsohn says. “To be honest, I have so much more fun opening these types of restaurants. I get to have funky designs, have some fun branding, get all my friends involved—it’s a lot of fun.”

But Mendelsohn isn’t interested in Good Stuff Eatery being just a popular hole-in-the-wall in D.C.—he wants to franchise the business and take it all over the U.S. and, eventually, the world.

“I want [Good Stuff Eatery] to be big,” he says. “I really want it to compete with the McDonald’s, the Burger Kings, and the Checkers of the world.”

In the meantime, Mendelsohn opened a second fast-casual concept next door to Good Stuff Eatery called We, The Pizza. It’s another concept he hopes to expand in a big way, and one where the very name defines his mantra of community and togetherness.

“I have to tell you, the fast-casual restaurants I have … are great, because they’re affordable to everybody,” he says. “I’m a laid-back guy, I want to play the Beatles and classic rock, have a burger, wash it down with a shake.”

The recipes collected to form Mendelsohn’s Good Stuff Cookbook reflect the “feel-good” menu options at the Good Stuff Eatery.

“It’s really an homage to everyone who’s helped me—all my friends, all my family, all my bosses, whoever’s helped me get to where I’m at,” he says. “It really gives you a short, catch-up life story of how I got from fine dining to burgers.”

Of course, Mendelsohn confesses that the pendulum swing he followed from fine dining to burgers may one day swing back in the other direction.

“You will see me doing a casual restaurant some day soon,” he says. “One day, it’s inevitable that I’ll open a restaurant that I want to be in the kitchen.”

By Sam Oches