Fast Casual | May 2017 | By Sam Oches

The D.C. Fast Casual Guests Won't Want to Leave

How a new D.C. fast casual is elevating its dine-in experience to create a neighborhood joint that’s comfortable and affordable.
Andre McCain designed HalfSmoke to be a unique experience, both in the setting and the menu. HalfSmoke
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Aside from service format, one big difference between traditional fast casuals and full-service concepts has always been the amount of time guests spend in the restaurant. Whereas full-service restaurants necessitate a significant period spent in the dining room, fast casuals are generally more concerned about throughput—getting customers in and out.

In today’s restaurant climate, however, experience is nearly as important as food quality, and fast casual 2.0 restaurants bridging the divide between fast casual and full service are learning that it can pay to promote a dine-in occasion.

Just ask Andre McCain, founder of HalfSmoke, a fast casual 2.0 gourmet sausage concept that opened in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood last year. McCain designed HalfSmoke to be very millennial-friendly, and in doing so created a restaurant that guests can’t help but want to stick around in. There’s a full bar, couches, games, and an overall vibe that encourages community, conversation, and fun.

“Part of the inspiration is very similar to what Starbucks did for the cup of coffee, which is to elevate its quality and perception of quality by designing a very premium experience around what was historically known as a low-quality product,” McCain says. “From there, the idea was to not force customers to choose between a full-service restaurant and a fast casual, which typically means the customer has to forgo a comfortable dining room or forgo having a full bar, or they have to pay a bunch of money and wait a long time for food.”

McCain is a millennial entrepreneur and first-time restaurateur, having spent the earlier part of his career in finance and commercial real estate. HalfSmoke is the product of years of researching the restaurant space. The goal, he says, was to create a restaurant that could serve as “your destination between work and home”—a neighborhood restaurant that offered affordability, as well as flexibility for guests to create their own experience, whether that’s on the go or dining in.

To create a comfortable space for the latter group, HalfSmoke features a number of unique flourishes, including couches, fire places, a foosball table, and a giant Jenga set. There’s even a photo booth for those guests looking to commemorate their time, and a patio for warmer weather. With these elements, McCain likes to refer to HalfSmoke as a “fun-casual” concept.

The menu promotes a flexible experience, as well. While the signature item is the Half-Smoke—a D.C.-area sausage favorite—customers can build their own dish, choosing among four bases (bun, rice bowl, flatbread, or greens), six proteins (along with the half-smoke, there’s also bratwurst, Italian pork, grilled chicken, lamb sausage, and falafel), and many toppings, dressings, and sauces. The wide range of sides includes tater tots, mac-n-cheese bites, and chili, and there’s also snacks like funnel cake and milkshakes.

“The idea is you would come in and be able to get a meal that’s of a similar quality to a fine-dining restaurant at what’s now known as a fast-casual price—around the $10 mark,” McCain says. “We also wanted to create a fun community space that has a very flexible meal-occasion profile. So you could come for a sausage for lunch; you could come for a beer at happy hour and watch a game; you could come just to hang out with friends and play games in the restaurant; or you could come and sit at your laptop and do work.”

The beverage program plays a significant role in making HalfSmoke a neighborhood destination where customers can sit and stay a while. Along with soda, lemonade, and tea, there’s a full 16-seat bar. The alcohol menu features 10 local draft beers, and wine and craft cocktails on tap. Guests can order flights of each, and they can even order boozy versions of the milkshakes.

The cocktails in particular are a perfect intersection of a full-service experience and a fast-casual expectation, McCain says. “We have four specialty cocktails on tap, which are house-made and really good quality, but we’re able to sell them at a much lower price than what you can typically find in this neighborhood, because we make them ourselves and serve via tap,” he says. “It saves time and labor, makes it a lot easier for the staff, and makes it a lot easier for the customers.”

McCain says the biggest challenge for HalfSmoke is perception; guests are well familiar with traditional fast casuals like Chipotle, but not with the experience proposition HalfSmoke offers. “It certainly isn’t something they’ve seen before, so it takes them a bit to understand it,” he says.

But he’s already seeing that change; while HalfSmoke was designed with millennials in mind, McCain says he’s been surprised at how successful the restaurant has been across the board demographically, in particular with families.

The grand plan for HalfSmoke is to expand, and McCain has help to get him there; former McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson is among HalfSmoke’s investors. But McCain doesn’t want to grow just like any other fast casual, leasing real estate that’s heavy in foot traffic and busiest between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. He wants to specifically target neighborhoods where people go for an experience, whether that’s a shopping district or an entertainment area.

“The challenge now for fast-casual restaurants is, how do you continue to wow and impress the customer?” he says. “Now they want a full bar; now they want a place that has a more comfortable dining experience; now they want an elevated level of service. Customers’ expectations are evolving as they’re getting a little bit more sophisticated with what they’ve come to expect from restaurants.”