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.”
Asian street food might be one of the best-known types of street food in the U.S. thanks to the prevalence of family owned restaurants around the country and prominent Asian neighborhoods in urban markets. Aside from Asian Box, fast casuals like San Francisco Indian concept CurryUpNow and Star Ginger, from fine-dining chef Mai Pham, are shopping traditional Asian street foods via brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“They’re inexpensive foods, but they’re very delicious, and they’re very craveable,” Pham says. “It’s easy, it’s very accessible, it’s easy to get to, and it’s very affordable. So a lot of the traditional Asian food cultures started out that way, out on the streets.”
Even established fast casual Mama Fu’s added street food to its menu when it developed an Asian Street Food category for its Black Market menu, available only to loyalty club members, last year.
“Being Asian to begin with, a lot of the street food is such a big [part] of the countries we serve the cuisine of, especially Vietnam and Thailand,” says Randy Murphy, Mama Fu’s CEO. “For our brand specifically, it was a great fit. You take that great fit with the segment, along with the ability to easily test it and get good feedback before you commit to putting it on the core menu, and it ended up being a perfect situation for us.”
But the fast-casual industry is lending credence to several other street foods from around the world. Berlin-inspired kebabs are VERTS’ specialty, while more traditional Turkish kebabs are taking off in Middle Eastern concepts like Chicago’s Naf Naf Grill. Falafel, another traditionally Middle Eastern street food, is getting some European flair at Washington, D.C.–based Amsterdam Falafelshop. Puesto Mexican Street Food is serving small-bite tacos, tostadas, and bowls influenced by south-of-the-border cuisine in its San Diego–area restaurants, and Pie Face in New York City is introducing Americans to Australia’s popular meat pies, traditionally a street food in the Land Down Under.
Piada Italian Street Food, a Columbus, Ohio–based brand with 20-plus units in the Midwest, made Italy’s street culture the soul of its concept. Founder and CEO Chris Doody says street-food culture in Italy is less about street-side vendors and more about the lifestyle of sidewalk cafés and their grab-and-go options.
“Street food is like a coffee shop, it’s like what Howard Schultz did with Starbucks: He brought the authentic café from Italy to the United States, but he really reinvented it for this country with macchiatos and lattes and cappuccinos and all these flavored coffee drinks,” Doody says. “His techniques were authentic and his beans were authentic, and what he’s done is about an experience. That’s what Piada is doing with Italian food.”
Piada’s menu is designed around three options: pasta bowls, salad bowls, and the piada, which is a thin-crust dough baked on a stone grill and then rolled up like a burrito. Special chef’s creations are available for each option, or customers can create their own, choosing from among seven grilled items, six sauces, six dressings, and 16 toppings.
For David Choi, choosing one culture’s street food to highlight in a fast-casual setting was too limiting. Instead, he gathered street foods from all over the world in his D.C.-based G Street Food, which has two locations and a third on the way. The concept serves up everything from banh mis, quesadillas, and curries to falafel, Cubanos, and hallal.
“The ability to play around with your menu and introduce, literally, regions and regions of flavors and the countless number of dishes you can come up with when it comes to street food, I think gives you huge potential in offering specials and getting your customers and clients constantly engaged and coming to your restaurant the next day,” Choi says.
Chef John Csukor, president and CEO of culinary and marketing agency KOR Food Innovation, says he expects street foods that haven’t already made inroads in the U.S. to soon do so. He sees doner kebabs, like those served at VERTS, to be among the next big things in U.S. foodservice, while Indonesian satays and Liège waffles from Belgium are dishes that he believes would perform very strongly here.
“That’s one that I’m dying to see hit the states, because I think people would just crush it here,” he says of the Liège waffle. “It’s not a ton of food, it’s something about the size of the palm of your hand or even a little smaller. But it’s so warm and delightful and crazy smelling. You can smell a Liège from like three blocks away.”
Csukor adds that street foods from around the world have huge potential in the U.S. because American consumers are increasingly looking for authenticity, flavor, affordability, small portions, and convenience, characteristics that street foods have in spades. In addition, as more people become comfortable with bold, ethnic flavors, street foods give operators a chance to try new things, which could even include fusing different cuisines into one item.
Another big advantage to doing street food in a fast-casual concept, he says, is that it creates a fun, engaging customer experience that he calls “eatertainment.”
“Street food delivery methods are usually very playful and whimsical. It’s something like a piece of paper, it could be a tin can, it could be something as simple as a piece of newspaper, as fish goes in the U.K.,” he says. “It’s something on a stick, it’s something that’s easily grabbed and walked away with. So I see that whimsy making its way into the ‘eatertainment’ portion of what we try to do in U.S. restaurants.”
The Hartman Group’s Abbott says the smaller portion sizes of street foods make them attractive to U.S. operators because of consumers’ evolving eating habits, which includes a move away from the traditional three-meals-a-day format.
“This is where playful small portions fits perfectly into the way American consumers are wanting to eat these days,” she says. “They’re looking more for the dayparts, where it’s not just breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They’re looking at different times of the day, whether it’s earlier than lunch, or the two o’clock hour, or four o’clock, where they want to have a couple snacks.”
Of course, once street foods make their way into the fast-casual brick-and-mortar setting, they are decidedly less “street” than the meals that inspired them. And operators interviewed for this story have differing opinions on how to communicate the street-food origins of their menu offerings; Asian Box and VERTS each included the term street food in their original branding but have since pulled back from it, whereas Piada and G Street Food incorporated the term into their names.
“As we go into other markets, we talk about if we put ‘street food’ on the sign, is anybody going to know what that means? Is that a national thing?” Asian Box’s Klein says. “So we tried to stay away from using the moniker of ‘street food.’ I also think it’s a little arrogant to use, because once you’re in a brick and mortar, come on, you’ve taken a different turn. You’re not a street stall; you’re not in Singapore; you’re not in Malaysia; you’re not in Vietnam or Bangkok.”
But in today’s food environment, one in which thousands of food trucks roam America’s streets and the foods of other cultures are splashed across the Travel Channel and Food Network, some believe that sharing a global street-food story with customers comes with a certain je ne sais quoi, an attractiveness that becomes part of a brand’s culture.
“Five to 10 years ago, ‘street food’ probably had more of a lower-cost, lower-quality type connotation to it,” Mama Fu’s Murphy says. “It’s really changed over the last five, six, seven years, and now it’s more that consumers want those flavors, want that credible experience, handmade roots. So I think that’s what’s driving it.”