Fast Casual | January 2016 | By Sam Oches

Q&A: Mike Isabella

The renowned Washington, D.C. restaurateur discusses his entrance into the fast-casual world.
Top Chef star Mike Isabella is innovating with fast casual sandwich joint in DC.
When chef Mike Isabella was looking for a way to leverage the spit-roasted meats served at his popular restaurant Kapnos, a fast-casual sandwich joint became the answer. Greg Powers

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.

(For more on D.C.'s thriving fast-casual scene, including a look at the 10 trailblazing concepts in the nation's capital, click here.)

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.

For chefs, we like to control more because people who come into our restaurants eat our food. For me to design a concept where they're going to make everything, it isn't really a chef-driven concept.

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.


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