On Washington, D.C.’s 14th Street, a sandwich shop is wowing guests with its innovative ingredients and flavor combinations—but it’s not doing so entirely in a fast-casual format. G by Mike Isabella is a fast-casual-by-day, full-service-by-night Italian sandwich joint owned by Isabella, the former Top Chef star and renowned D.C. restaurateur.
G is next door to Isabella’s popular Kapnos, a fine-dining Greek restaurant that spit-roasts whole animals; the chef wanted to better leverage those meats within a more casual environment and opted to run a sandwich joint from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and casual Italian restaurant from 6 to 10 p.m.
In the fall, Isabella sat down with QSR’s Sam Oches to discuss why he wanted to be in the fast-casual business, why he doesn’t approve of menu customization in his concept, and where he sees the chef-driven fast-casual movement going from here.
Why did you want to open a sandwich shop?
I wanted to be able to cross-utilize the product, because when you spit-roast an animal and you start carving all the meat off, you can’t really put it on the next day. I wanted to do a high-end sandwich shop; a sandwich shop that’s run by chefs, run by my cooks that train underneath my chefs, and more of a gourmet-style product. That’s how it all started when we started coming up with concepts.
Are all of the future G locations going to be fast service?
Yeah. This one is a sandwich shop by day and a full-service restaurant at night, so this one’s a little more unique than that. But fast casual is something I wanted. Now I have fast casual, I have casual, I have upscale casual. I wanted to hit on all those types of concepts. I wanted more range than a normal chef. … They’re a little bit easier to run, less staff members. But I wanted to work with a high-end product, and that’s what we do.
[Service style] all depends on the space and location. I love the whole 7,000-square-foot layout, but I knew I couldn’t do just a Greek restaurant, so that’s why we decided to do the sandwich shop next door to it. In this area, there are not many offices, so at nighttime, business is quiet. In D.C., there’s not a very big nighttime fast-casual business, depending on the location. In this area, we decided, since we have a full kitchen, and we have all the tables and chairs, why not do a full-service restaurant at night?
More chefs are moving into fast casual. How do you think chefs are changing fast casual?
We have an edge over regular people because we work with great products, we run great restaurants, and we just have to think about it a little more to make it feasible and easy to turn out. I would rather go to a chef-driven shop than just an average chain, because I know the products they’re getting, some of the things they’re working on, the flavors that are going to be a little more unique to it—custom-designed breads, custom-designed meats, custom-designed sauces. Where [chains often have] a basic mayonnaise or oil and vinegar, it doesn’t always work like that for us. We think about the food a little more than the average person would instead of the business. That’s where it’s a little stronger for us.
How can you change the customer perception of what a sandwich can be?
No. 1 is they have to eat the sandwich. It’s putting a lot of love into the roasted cauliflower, the romesco sauce on there, the fresh herbs, the pickled vegetables, the vinaigrette, the roasted peppers in there. For me, it’s thinking about what I would serve my guests in my full-service restaurants, and hitting all the notes on your palate: the crunchy, the salty, the bitter, the sweet, the tangy. That’s how I think about food. So the same way I would think about an entrée or a dish is the same way I would think about a sandwich.
That’s the difference compared with a Subway. At Subway, the guest is controlling their whole experience. They get to make their own sandwich. But I don’t particularly like to do that. I want people to come in and eat my food. And there are things like roasted cauliflower, which you haven’t seen before, but there are also things like our Chicken Parmesan. Everyone has had Chicken Parmesan in America. We try to make it better than everybody else, but it’s the way we use the whole chicken. We take the breast off the chicken, bread them, fry them, then we take the legs and we braise them and we make a chicken tomato sauce, like a gravy, with it, then we put that on with the breasts with fresh Mozzarella, not the regular processed stuff. It’s fresh basil on there; we use Thai basil. We put a little more effort into our food and our sandwiches.
Is customization here to stay or will people move away from that?
I think it’s a very successful trend with Chipotle and Subway and Cava [Grill] and all those guys. For chefs, we like to control more because people who come into our restaurants eat our food. So for me to design a concept where they’re going to make everything, it isn’t really a chef-driven concept. And I want it to be chef driven. Are our sandwiches a little more expensive? Yeah. Are they a little bigger? They are. Is the product a little more expensive? It is. But that’s part of what we do with it.
I think it’s going for a turn because chefs are getting involved and they’re giving you the food you want when you go to their restaurants.
How do you maintain consistency as you expand?
It’s a team. I have directors and corporate chefs and they’re building a team and grooming them and working with them. Then it’s putting systems into place on training. We just opened up Kapnos Taverna in DCA airport. We have our team there—we have our front-of-the-house director there, we have our beverage director there, we have our corporate chef there. We sent in two of our chefs to work there that came from our systems so we could put all the systems in place and make it consistent, make it the same. That’s what I want to do with all the places.
When we opened up in [Nationals] Park, I was on the line, my chef George was on the line, and my chef Mark from G was on the line, and we were all working until we got everyone trained the way we wanted them trained. We try to offer the same kind of service and product that we would offer here in a stadium or in an airport or in another state. It’s all about creating systems.
What kind of growth are you looking into for G?
We’re looking into airports in other states, and local neighborhoods. A sandwich shop is more about being quick [and] easy for people who live around the area, who work around the area. Not many people are going to drive across town for their lunch and go find parking to come in and get a sandwich. But we do have online ordering, where you can order ahead of time and come in and pick it up. We’ll eventually get to delivery.
Are you considering franchising?
No franchising for me. I’m going to control the growth. I want to have a bunch of these sandwich shops, but I don’t want to have 300 of them. That’s not what this concept is. But I wouldn't mind having 25 of them. That’s more controllable for me, more feasible for me. I’ll keep it more on the East Coast where I can be a part of it.
How are chefs changing how people think about food?
I think 20 years ago, you had fine-dining restaurants and chains. There really wasn’t anything in the middle. As the industry grew and as the younger chefs and the cooks underneath them started leaving, but didn’t have the money or the process to open these fine-dining restaurants, they started opening up upscale casuals or casuals or fast casuals. There are hundreds of thousands of cooks and chefs in America, and they want to do good food, but now you can do good food where you come in, order at a cashier, and leave with it.
That’s what chefs really enjoy: serving a good product across the board. That’s why more chefs are getting involved; it’s a little bit easier, it’s cheaper to open up a fast casual that’s 1,200 or 1,500 square feet than it is to open up a 5,000–6,000-square-foot restaurant. It’s less staff, less overhead, less raising money, and it’s quicker, but they can still have fun and creativity with it and still put chef-driven techniques into the food.
Is it appealing to get more exposure through fast casual?
It’s very appealing. Wolfgang [Puck] was one of the first chefs to do that through his express pizzas and his express line. José [Andrés] is starting to do it, and I started a couple years ago with this. Rick Bayless started it a couple years ago and is getting bigger and bigger. It’s fun, it’s easy, and after I did it, I was like, Why didn’t I do this earlier? I’m still working with the same products and same techniques, but offering a good product and people come in and are so excited to eat a great sandwich and get a drink and leave spending under $20. You’re really hitting a lot more people, and it’s a good marketing aspect for you because you’re touching more people. And you can do more of these in a quicker way to get it out there to build your brand.
As a chef of casual and fine-dining restaurants, are you worried at all that fast casuals might steal business away from those restaurants?
Not at all. I don’t feel any competition because the way I think as a chef, and the way a lot of chefs think, is all of our food is going to be a little bit different than the next guy. So I don’t worry if there’s another sandwich shop. Taylor [Gourmet] is two or three blocks away. They do well, and we do well. I don’t think it takes much away at all. Their sandwiches are different than our sandwiches.
Who is your core demographic at G?
It’s a mix. On this block on 14th Street, it’s a lot of residential. So we’re getting a lot of people who work from home, some people who work in the area, the office buildings. But it’s more local and it’s all different ages. It’s wives with strollers, it’s kids coming in before they go to work, it’s people on their lunch break. It’s a little bit of everything. We get all different ages because we offer a good product.
Why is D.C. such a great environment for fast casual?
Honestly, I think it had a lot to do with money in D.C. You have government and tourism, and it’s a growing city. It’s a newer city, with all of the developments. There are a lot of new job opportunities. And there’s a business model here; I think it’s going to bring chains out, it’s going to bring celebrity chefs out, it’s starting to open up the doors.
That being said, there are a lot of great deals in the buildings and spaces, so a lot of younger chefs are able to open up sandwich shops or burger joints and things like that, and it’s a little bit easier than it would be in New York City or Philadelphia, where they’ve been doing it for years and it’s crammed in there and prices are higher. So I thought it would be a little bit easier to do that format here.
Do you need to go to New York and Philly to replicate this?
I don’t know that I’ll ever go to New York. I never say never, but it’s something I’ve never really looked into. Right now I try to focus on D.C., Virginia, and Maryland; that’s my little metro area, our hub. We’re close; I can be in and out of all my restaurants in a matter of minutes—20 minutes here, 15 minutes there. I like having access to be involved and show my face in my restaurants.
How can you balance accessible price points with high-quality ingredients?
You’re going to have some things that are a little more expensive—like a [Spiced Baby] Goat Sandwich, which is $13—but you’re also going to have a Roasted Cauliflower Sandwich, which is $8. So you have to cross utilize. I can’t just sell all high-end products. I have to work with some vegetarian stuff, and some different types of products, like meatballs where we’re not working with the primal cuts, we’re working with more ground types of meats and pork, veal, and beef. You have to learn how to balance your menus accordingly, and how you balance it is understanding, as a chef, cross utilization, working with vegetables, working with the seasons, working with things that aren’t the most expensive products sometimes.
But I do want to have the high-end stuff, and I do want to have farmed cauliflower coming from the local farms from around here, which is going to make the sandwich taste really good. You just have to know your proper product mix and balancing.
I imagine local sourcing isn’t very hard around here.
Not at all. Obviously it would be easier if you were in L.A. or San Francisco because that product is year-round, but here you have to work a little bit more with the seasons. So we make some menu changes, some soup changes, some side changes throughout the seasons. We keep it seasonal, we keep it fresh, and we keep it in the price point, because when you’re going to buy tomatoes in the winter, tomato salad is going to cost you a lot more money, and it’s not going to be as good. So let’s take that tomato salad off in the winter and do something else. That’s the way we look at things.
How are customers embracing the idea of seasonal menus?
We probably have the most expensive sandwich in the city, but we also have the best product. So people know that if you don’t want to spend that money, you can go to Quiznos. But with all the food shows on TV, and with all of the new markets like Whole Foods and Harris Teeter, I think there is so much knowledge going into the people who are shopping on a daily basis, who see how the produce is changing throughout the year. People are very knowledgeable, much more knowledgeable than five years ago or 10 years ago. It’s a whole different demographic. And everyone is health conscious, and everyone wants to eat food that’s healthy and good for you and also valuable from a dollar standpoint.
Is it becoming easier to source certain things as this interest grows?
We are growing together. It is a lot easier than it was. Seven years ago, eight years ago, I was working with individual farmers to grow me tomatoes, to grow me peppers. Now they’re all starting to do that. They’re all growing these unique, hybrid brands like zebra tomatoes or padrón peppers or this or that, and it’s becoming easier and easier because us chefs put a lot of that ground work in 10 years ago, 15 years ago, to get where we are now. We’ve been doing this our whole careers. I’ve been doing this for 20 years.