One of the most dynamic culinary changes in restaurant history may be wafting just under our collective noses: Chefs—real, honest-to-goodness chefs—are taking over fast-casual kitchens.
Thought it was just a novelty? For 2016, these chef-driven fast-casual restaurants rank as the industry’s second-hottest trend—behind only the local meat and seafood craze. That’s not my projection, but straight from the chef’s mouth—make that 20,000 chefs, who said so in the recent National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” survey, completed in conjunction with the American Culinary Federation (ACF).
This wouldn’t have seemed possible even a handful of years ago, when most bona fide chefs were still hitching their stars exclusively to fine dining and thumbing their noses at anything even remotely associated with fast food. But some of the nation’s most exciting, experimental, and, yes, frustrated chefs have decided to follow the trends—and the money. Consider: The explosive fast-casual category has grown 550 percent since 1999, according to research firm Euromonitor. For perspective, that’s roughly 10 times the growth of the rest of the fast-food industry during the same period.
Beyond the money, there’s the cultural influence that Millennials continue to have over what, where, and how we eat. They want it fast. They want it reasonably priced. But just as important? They want it relatively good for you.
“Millennials are food-aware, food-serious, and food-adventurous,” says Rachel Kalt, senior strategist at The Culinary Edge, a culinary consulting firm and design agency. “But they also put a high level of importance on value.”
A 2015 Zagat report showed that consumers, especially among the younger demographics, want chefs to join the fast-casual world. According to the firm’s “2015 Fast-Casual Chains Survey,” 78 percent of consumers said they would like to see more local chefs open fast-casual eateries. A full 83 percent of consumers in their 20s and 81 percent of consumers in their 30s reported the same.
The whirling world of chef-driven fast-casual restaurants has many spokes. Many credit Chipotle and its chef founder, Steve Ells, for the industry’s growth. Others credit a foodie-infused society fueled by the Food Network and social media–obsessed Millennials. Still others recognize food trucks as the impetus.
Don’t look for the trend to go anywhere but up. While fewer than one in 10 fast-casual restaurants are chef driven, says Thomas Macrina, president of the ACF, that number could more than double within 10 years. “I see it popping up all over the place,” he says, adding that while the trend began in big cities, it will quickly filter to smaller markets.
These types of fast-casual restaurants are where Millennials go. Fine dining is a once-in-a-blue-moon experience for them, but fast casual is more like once a week, Kalt says. Since most folks don’t have the money to spend on fine dining, the chef-driven fast-casual movement has “democratized” eating, she says.
The trend isn’t limited to the absurdly famous celebrity chefs. It’s also become a hit among serious chefs who place the integrity of food at the very top of their shopping lists.
Chefs like Franklin Becker. The 46-year-old is chef partner at The Little Beet, a fast-casual chain of five restaurants that is laser-focused on the wholesomeness of the food it serves. It was more than economics that drove Becker away from fine dining to fast casual. It was also a matter of his own health. Becker was in his 20s when he was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. Then his son, Sean, was born with autism. In tandem, these seemingly unrelated issues convinced Becker to find a way to offer better food to all. “My principles and philosophy of food aligned with my desire to provide a better offering for the public,” he says.
Andy Duddleston, managing partner of The Little Beet, got the idea for the concept when he and his coworkers couldn’t find a decent, reasonably priced restaurant for a quick lunch in New York City. “We had nowhere to quickly grab lunch and feel good about what we ate,” he says.
Besides its two locations in Manhattan, The Little Beet recently opened a storefront in Washington, D.C., and another location is planned to open soon in Manhattan. Most of the food is locally grown, seasonal, and natural. All of it is 100 percent gluten-free. A typical lunch costs $10–$12—several bucks more than conventional fast food. But that’s not stopping the crowds from showing up. One of the New York locations is turning nearly 1,000 meals a day between noon and 2 p.m., Duddleston says. About 65 percent of the business is lunch, while 20 percent is dinner and 15 percent breakfast.
Duddleston’s goal is to grow nationally; four to six locations will open this year.
Just a few years ago, it would have been a “sellout” for a top chef to get involved in fast casual, says Becker, who was executive chef at several fine-dining establishments in New York City and Las Vegas. “I see a 180-degree change in how the American public is eating. People want quality—even on the go.”
Jumping into fast casual goes far beyond business potential, though, Becker says. “In fast casual, you can touch so many more people and make such a difference in so many people’s lives,” he says. “We want to change the way America eats.”
One restaurant—if not one bite—at a time.