Web Exclusive | January 2016 | By Sam Oches

2016: Year of the Chef

Three high-profile chefs have already opened fast casuals this year. Will this be the biggest year yet for the chef revolution?
Top US chefs open new fast casual restaurant concepts to attract mass public.
Porano Pasta, from St. Louis chef Gerard Craft, features customizable bowls with authentic Italian ingredients. image used with permission.

Chefs have been flocking to the fast-casual category for the last five years, but 2016 might prove to be the biggest year so far for the chef revolution—at least, if January is to be believed.

Already this month, four high-profile chefs have opened fast-casual concepts that they intend to build into multiunit chains. Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson teamed on the California-based LocoL, while New York’s Marc Forgione opened Lobster Press and St. Louis chef Gerard Craft launched Porano Pasta.

Lobster Press is located in New York’s Penn Station, in a new food hall called The Pennsy that opened just over two weeks ago. Forgione says he’d been contemplating a fast casual for some time, and the pieces fell together when The Pennsy asked him to do a seafood-based concept in the new hall.

“Especially after Danny Meyer cashed in with Shake Shack, I think everybody is trying to come up with the next Shake Shack,” Forgione says. “But I did know this: If I was going to do something, it was going to be something different.”

Aside from the Lobster Press Panini, the new concept features Coconut Lobster Bisque, a Chili Lobster Salad, and Da Dip, a regular grilled cheese with a side of the dipping sauce, among other items.

Forgione says the team is working out all of the systems at The Pennsy location, and once the systems are together and the concept is proven, he’d like to open as many as possible, citing stadiums, music venues, and shopping malls as possible destinations.

On Martin Luther King Day, Choi and Patterson opened in Los Angeles the first location for LocoL, a buzzed-about quick-service concept that aims to bring healthy, affordable meals to food deserts (areas with limited access to wholesome foods) across the country.

“Especially after Danny Meyer cashed in with Shake Shack, I think everybody is trying to come up with the next Shake Shack.”

LocoL’s menu features healthier versions of fast-food classics. There are $4 “Burgs” (burgers and sandwiches with proteins mixed with grains), $2 “Foldies” (folded tortillas stuffed with carnitas, beans, cheese, and healthy fixin’s), $3 “Crunchies” (nuggets), $1 “Yotchays” (sides like rice, greens, and slaw), $6 Bowls, and even quality coffee for $1.

Choi and Patterson envision thousands of LocoL units across the country sitting side-by-side with traditional quick serves like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Subway.

“I don’t know how many years I have left on this planet, but my next chapter is all about empowering communities to change the balance,” Choi says. “We’re riding the Big Kahuna. It’s a spiritual wave that’s going to change the way we eat.”

And in St. Louis, Craft is similarly hoping to elevate the quality of fast food through his Porano Pasta concept, which opened this week and is designed around authentic Italian ingredients layered in bowls.

Guests walk down the line at Porano to customize their own bowls, selecting a base, sauce, protein, and toppings. Bases include hand-made pasta—both organic semolina and gluten-free—as well as Italian rice, organic farro, and a romaine and kale blend. There are 11 sauces, ranging from Pomodoro and Alfredo to a Pumpkin Seed and Lime Pesto and Garlic and Chili Oil. There are also 11 toppings (including cheeses, nuts, and vegetables) and a half dozen proteins.

Craft says his team intentionally created a personal interaction between staff and guests so his team could educate customers on which flavors pair best together.

“When guests come down the line, they’re put at ease by our staff,” he says. “You’re greeted with a smile, and you’re greeted with knowledgeable staff members who understand the menu, who eat the food every single day, and who know it inside out, because they also make the food every day.”

These concepts follow on the heels of so many other chef-driven fast casuals from coast to coast, including New York’s Brooks Headley (with Superiority Burger), Washington, D.C.’s Jose Andres (Beefsteak), and San Diego’s Richard Blais (the chicken-and-eggs focused Crack Shack).

And more have promised fast casuals in the coming year. Perhaps most notable of the bunch are the co-owners of the famed Eleven Madison Park in New York, the fine-dining restaurant that also helped launch Shake Shack. Daniel Humm and Will Guidara announced late last year that they would open the counter-service concept Made Nice sometime in 2016.

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