Web Exclusive | January 2017 | By Danny Klein

The 5 Biggest Fast Casual Openings of 2016

Chef-driven was the theme of the year, as some of the industry's biggest names entered the fast-casual arena.
At Lobster Press, you can sample dishes inspired by Chef Marc Forgione's famed restaurant. Lobster Press
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LocoL

Opened: January

Los Angeles

Martin Luther King Day marked one year since Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson opened the first outpost of their ambitious concept in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Choi, the Godfather of the food-truck movement, has visions of thousands of the units, which aim to serve healthy, made-from-scratch affordable fare in food desserts across the country, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the major players. Picture a turkey chili bowl priced at just $7 or a gourmet burger for only $5. In May, LocoL debuted its second location in Oakland. Earlier this month, Choi responded to a zero-star review from New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, who ate at LocoL's Oakland spot. Choi said, in part, "The truth is that LocoL has hit a nerve. Doesn't mean all people love it, some hate it. But no one is indifferent by it. ... His criticisms are a reflection of us and the nerve that LocoL touches. And our imperfections. Also the nerve of challenging the binary structure of privileged thought patterns and how life is not just about what's a success or failure, but some things are real struggles and growth journeys." Read the whole post here.


Porano Pasta

Opened: January

St. Louis

You could say 2016 was the Year of the Chef in fast casual. Given the landscape of the restaurant industry, where casual dining was the worst performing segment for 10 of the 12 months, according to TDn2K, even the most accomplished culinary professional began to see the limited-service light. St. Louis chef Gerard Craft, who has a James Beard Award to his name, joined the movement with his Porano Pasta early in the year. The concept, built around authentic Italian ingredients layered in bowls, allows guests to walk down the line and customize the experience, a la the tried and true Mexican-themed model. As far as what's next, expect to see the menu keep evolving. The concept added pizza in the fall.


Great State Burger

Opened: February

Seattle

Chef Josh Henderson bravely dove into the conversation with Great State Burger, announcing his plan to hit double-digit units in the not-so-distant future. Henderson is no stranger to this sort of ambition. As part of Huxley Wallace Collective, he's led Westward, Quality Athletics, Bar Noroeste, Saint Helens, Vestal, and Cantine from concept to execution. And in 2017, he has a ramen joint on the way. As far as units go, he opened nine in seven months at one point last year. Two of those were the nostalgic Great State Burger, which is his "take on the classic American burger joint." They feature organically raised, grass-fed, and grass-finished beef from a ranch in Northern Oregon. The milkshakes are also organic, the ice cream local, and the fruit sourced right from Theo's in Seattle.


Lobster Press

Opened: January

New York City

Across the coast, another prime-time chef made his foray into the space, opening Lobster Press in The Pennsy, a food hall in Penn Station. Marc Forgione, chef and owner of Michelin-starred Restaurant Marc Forgione, and a Food Network Iron Chef, had this to say about his decision to step outside his element: "Especially after Danny Meyer cashed in with Shake Shack, I think everybody is trying to come up with the next Shake Shack. But I did know this: If I was going to do something, it was going to be something different." It's plenty different. There aren't many places in America you can quickly order a Lobster Grilled Cheese and ask for some coconut lobster bisque on the side. Later in the year, Forgione unveiled the second unit in the Westfield World Trade Center.


Shouk

Opened: May

Washington, D.C.

Founder Ran Nussbacher's first restaurant is 100 percent plant based, presenting a Middle Eastern-inspired menu that also serves craft beer and wine on tap. Shouk never imitates meat. The No. 1 selling dish is roasted cauliflower in a pita or bowl with tomatoes, scallions, tahina, and jalapeño oil. Shouk, which translates to "market" in Hebrew, features pitas, rice, and lentil bowls, and salads. As consumers trend toward healthier, plant-forward dishes, Nussbacher believes ethnic cuisines, like Middle Eastern, can serve as the perfect vessel. "Middle Eastern cuisine, more so than others, and certainly more than Western culture, is a cuisine that relies on plants," he told QSR earlier in the year.