Fast-casual restaurants have become undeniably attractive to chefs who are looking to expand their portfolios or establish a business venture with legs to grow.
But the leap into a counter-service format isn’t so simple as nixing a wait staff. Just ask Chef Cameron Grant, executive chef at Chicago’s Italian darling Osteria Langhe. Grant and his business partner, Aldo Zaninotto, opened Animale last May as a counter-service spinoff of three-year-old Osteria Langhe, dishing upscale Italian dishes at a more casual price point.
“We enjoyed the idea of people walking in and making it easy and having lower expectations—not in a bad way, but more of a surprise,” Grant says. “I thought if we created cool, fun, funky Italian street food, people would like it.”
And they do; business at Animale, located in Chicago’s Logan Square, has been strong since opening.
There was just one thing about the restaurant that wasn’t quite working like the cofounders expected: the counter-service format.
Initially, Animale customers ordered at a counter and sat down, then interacted with wait staff for all other needs after that. Kitchen staff often brought the food out to guests themselves, and waiters with tablets floated throughout the dining room, available to take orders whenever customers needed something.
After a few months’ worth of customer feedback, though, the message to Grant was clear: Guests didn’t get it.
“They were confused by the whole thing,” he says. “We had to adapt, because people didn’t enjoy it. We continue to make changes based on feedback from customers. That’s the whole point; we’re not here for my ego and my idea. It’s not about what I want. It’s about making the people happy.”
So counter service was nixed. “We found it a lot more hospitable for when they walk in, we say, ‘Hello, welcome to Animale; take a seat, we’ll be right with you,’” Grant says. “Then we start the service there.”
In the true sense of the word, though, Animale remains a hybrid concept. Throughout the day, guests can walk in and order their food to go at a special takeout station in the restaurant. Grant says to-go orders are usually ready within 10 minutes.
And that’s no small feat for what Animale is accomplishing in the kitchen. While counter service was the original goal, the restaurant wasn’t exactly serving frozen pizzas and meatballs. The menu maintains the same from-scratch preparation and high-quality ingredients as Osteria Langhe, Grant says.
Options include the $14 Lingua & Coda (oxtail and lambs tongue, spicy garlic marsala, and potato and Parmigiano shepherd’s pie) and the $17 Vitello (seared hanger steak, savage sauce, bitter greens, red wine, and shallots).
There are also panini, like the $11 Verdure (chickpea and quinoa farinata, mushrooms, goat cheese cream, and bitter greens) and the $18 Tartufo Burger (two Piedmontese patties, Fontina, a sunny egg, and 2 grams of black truffles, which are shaved table-side).
The goal of the menu, Grant says, is to be authentic but accessible.
“We’re not trying to be pretentious. We’re not trying to be egotistical. We like the idea of educating someone on the Italian words and how they’re fun to say,” he says. “We have a good time with it. I think Italian food gets a bad rap. In terms of fast-casual Italian, you’ve got pizza, meatballs, and subs. That’s where a lot of people go, so they think of that. In my mind, the market has never been played with.”
While Animale ditched most of the counter-service model, it maintains another element that’s distinctly fast casual: customization.
For pasta, guests can choose a size (4 ounces, 8 ounces, or 1 pound), then decide among four pastas (spaghetti, gnocchi, pappardelle, and cavatappi) and five sauces (cacio e pepe, tartufo nero, ragu di carne, pesto, and pomodoro).
The introduction to the more casual hybrid model has been a learning experience for Grant, who says he expected Animale to be easier to manage than Osteria Langhe—expectations that eventually proved to be unfounded.
“It’s harder, because every person who walks through the door is spending a third of what they would spend when they walk into Osteria Langhe,” he says. “So not only do you need to get the people in the doors, you need to get three to four times as many people in the doors.”
It’s too early to tell whether the change to table service will alleviate some of the volume issues. But one thing is for sure after Grant and Zaninotto’s dive into the hybrid world: They don’t have Shake Shack–sized aspirations for Animale. They’re happy to leverage the restaurant as a creative outlet and as an opportunity to introduce guests to more inventive Italian fare.
“For me, it’s worth doing something fun. I read the menu and I get excited, so I think it’s going to work,” Grant says. “It’s so easy not to have fun. It’s intense. I’ve been running kitchens for over 10 years and I’ve been cooking for 15 years, and the difference between cooking and running a restaurant business is immense.
“You have to believe in what you’re doing,” he adds. “And we do.”