Washington, D.C., wasn't always known as a food town. For years our nation's capital languished as a culinary wasteland, filled with stuffy steakhouses and corporate types with little sense for restaurant adventure.
Today, however, the city is a bona fide food destination, and that's especially true of the homegrown fast-casual brands that have sprung up in the last three to five years. From Sweetgreen to Cava Grill, Taylor Gourmet to Beefsteak, these upstart fast-casual brands have matured into major industry threats with fans and investors at their backs and the rest of the country in their crosshairs.
QSR editor Sam Oches traveled to D.C. in the fall to do a fast-casual deep dive, going behind the scenes of several concepts to get a sense of why Washington, D.C., has become the hotbed for Fast Casual 2.0 innovation.
The headquarters for the four-year-old fast-casual pizza brand &pizza is on the third floor of a low-rising row of brick storefronts that branches off Capitol Hill. Downstairs, on a Friday evening in the fall, government aides and interns cram into a dingy bar that smells of stale beer, ties loosened and cuffs rolled.
In many ways, &pizza's headquarters reflects the company's restaurants: The open office space is alight with white finishes and cut with black highlights, a color theme that pervades everything from &pizza's interior design to its merchandise and its signature ampersand logo. These design touches are integral to the &pizza concept, a modern and creative branding that seeks to promote a localized pizza shop experience.
"Our design is a little more urban and edgy and somewhat progressive," says cofounder and CEO Michael Lastoria, sitting at a white-marble table in a conference room that overlooks Pennsylvania Avenue. "That lends itself to this market and what's happening here. This is a very up-and-coming city. It's not the city of 10 years ago or 30 years ago. It's very much a city of the future, and there's a lot of diversity and inclusion, and those are two things the brand stands for."
Lastoria looks as much a rebel of the corporate chain mentality as the brand's restaurant design. Dark hair hangs over his shoulders, while a thick beard creeps down toward his chest. The 35-year-old entrepreneur developed the idea for the brand while he was living in New York running an ad agency, but decided to relocate to D.C. specifically to harness the fast-casual energy that had already started to bubble to the city's surface.
Fast Casual 2.0 brands that are helping turn Washington, D.C., into a new capital of restaurant innovation.
Since it first opened in 2012, &pizza has grown to 13 units in the D.C. area, each one leveraging the signature personality of the neighborhood it occupies, whether it's in the pictures on the walls or the tribe members (employees) behind the counter. "I think the thing that's so special about D.C. is it's so community-based," says Heidi Guerard, creative director at &pizza. "People really take pride in, 'I live on H Street,' or, 'I live in Columbia Heights.' That plays really well into how our store design is so neighborhood-specific."
While the core operation at &pizza is a build-your-own-pizza bar, the menu also includes signature items with ingredients more often found in upscale dining. Pizzas are oblong instead of round. There is craft beer, as well as house-made wine and soda. Much like fast-casual giants Chipotle and Shake Shack, &pizza is obsessive about its branding and the lifestyle it promotes, which extends beyond the menu to its interactions with customers and employees.
Rather than mass replicate a set &pizza experience, Lastoria says, he and his team are determined to grow only as fast as they can embed themselves within each city's community. It's a model that won't be franchised, one that will be carefully controlled. "We know what we believe in, we know what our values are, we know what we want to create, and we focus on creating that," he says. "You win by differentiating the product, by differentiating with service, by differentiating with experience, by differentiating with design."
This year marks the first time &pizza will grow beyond the D.C. metropolitan area; new locations are set to open in Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia in 2016, and Lastoria is optimistic that New York City will follow shortly after. But &pizza, he says, isn't reserved for the nation's largest urban markets. "Parts of every city can be [an &pizza city]," he says. "There are pockets in every city that we feel are special. I think long-term, places like Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh [make sense]. Part of our brand is very blue collar."
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