The story of the future of the foodservice industry starts with a man, a man who trained to become a chef, a chef who wanted to do things differently. Or maybe it was that all he could afford to do was something different. But in his first restaurant, different is what he did: different service format, different ingredients, different sourcing partners, different idea of what was possible outside of the fine-dining arena.
And so it was when his first restaurant opened in Denver—different. But different worked. One restaurant became two. Two restaurants became 1,400. A simple burrito shop founded in 1993 with a loan from the chef’s parents became a $2.7 billion chain that had feasted on the country’s hunger for something different from traditional fast food and helped create a wholly new—different—restaurant category.
The story of Chipotle and its founder, Steve Ells—the story of how he left his job at the iconic Stars restaurant in San Francisco to re-create what was happening at the taquerias in that city’s Mission District and, in essence, sow the seeds for what would become the fast-casual industry—etches itself more firmly into fast-food lore with the launch of every upstart fast-casual disciple, the shift of every quick-service trend toward something more fresh, premium, authentic. But in today’s limited-service environment, it’s not just the explosion of fast casual and its seemingly boundless potential that can be traced back to Chipotle’s conception. Ells’ decision, as a chef, to enter the limited-service world also established a precedent for a new crop of classically trained chefs who are now revolutionizing the foodservice world by delivering high-quality, innovative foods to the masses in fast-casual environments.
“The fast-casual sector is the best sector to [scale] because we reach the most people,” says Jeremy Barlow, founder of Nashville-based sandwich concept Sloco and former chef and owner at fine-dining restaurant Tayst. “Fine dining is cool, fine dining is groovy; that’s where the cool chefs are, people who are covered in tattoos—I’m one of them—and that’s what the Food Network likes to portray, and that’s what all the shows are on, and it captures people’s attention. But it’s a small part of the market. Fast casual is a huge chunk of the food dollars, and a huge chunk of the population.”
Independent chefs like Barlow are coming to that realization, but so are some high-profile chefs with James Beard awards, TV appearances, and heavy financial sway under their belts. Danny Meyer dove in with Shake Shack. Rick Bayless with Xoco, Tortas Frontera, and Frontera Fresco. Richard Blais opened a collection of FLIP Burgers in Atlanta, while his “Top Chef” peer Spike Mendelsohn is preparing to franchise his Good Stuff Eatery around the country. Michael Voltaggio, Art Smith, Bobby Flay—the list of fine-dining chefs who have dipped their toes into the waters of fast casual grows by the day. Most recently, Jose Andres announced his intention to open a quick-service concept in the near future.
Their motives aren’t all the same. Bayless, for example, initially opened Xoco because the space next to his two full-service restaurants was available and he didn’t want to cannibalize the full-service business. Today, he’s only opening additional fast-casual locations on an opportunity-by-opportunity basis, as was the case when Bon Appétit Management Company recently asked him to open at the University of Pennsylvania. Meyer launched Shake Shack because a real estate opportunity in Madison Square Park intrigued him, and though he and his Union Square Hospitality Group have maintained that they only want to grow methodically and as opportunities present themselves, momentum has clearly picked up now that 27 Shake Shacks are open around the world. Mendelsohn, meanwhile, has made known his intentions to build Good Stuff Eatery into a prominent national chain, while Bradley Ogden, the James Beard–winning chef and proprietor of Bradley Ogden Hospitality, was attracted to the opportunity of serving his foods to a mass audience when he opened his fast-casual chicken concept, Funky Chicken, in Houston with his son Bryan.
“I think you sort of have to go with the trend setters, but also the market is that people want to go out and dine, but they have more of a limited budget,” Ogden says. “In the whole aspect of casual dining these days, it’s not just trendy, it’s sort of the whole economical aspect of it. … It can transcend a variety of different locations. It could be in airports, it could be in shopping centers like we’re doing, in little boutique areas in a community where people just live and dine.”
No matter their motives, it’s clear from the success of these brands and the kind of exposure they drum up in the national media that customers are eager to try buzz-worthy and higher-quality limited-service concepts with branding connected to respected, recognizable figures.
“A fast-casual brand run by a fine-dining chef allows consumers to have a memorable experience more frequently,” says Mike Pruitt, president and CEO of Chanticleer Holdings, an operating holding company that owns a stake in several foodservice brands, as well as the rights to develop a fast-casual concept spun off of Chef John Tesar’s award-winning Dallas restaurant, Spoon Bar & Kitchen. “Also, the rise of fine-dining personalities in the media is very appealing to consumers—seeing a chef like John Tesar on ‘Top Chef’ reinforces his brand, and many consumers want to try his take on food, yet not everyone can go to Dallas and have that experience at Spoon Bar & Kitchen. With a fast-casual concept, more people will be able to try his unique style of food and his brand.”
One of the earliest fine-dining restaurant operators to invest in the fast-casual space was Craft Restaurants, owned by renowned chef and “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio. The company opened the sandwich shop ’wichcraft in New York City in 2003 and has since expanded it to 17 locations in New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas.
Jeffrey Zurofsky, CEO of ’wichcraft, says that with no comparable concept open at the time—the term fast casual barely even existed—the team at Craft wanted to open a restaurant that could serve a quick, inexpensive meal with premium ingredients. Using the same standards and techniques that made Craft one of New York’s premier fine-dining establishments, ’wichcraft was born.
“The main thing was all of the technique and all of the values and principles of what we did in our fine-dining restaurants were really important to communicate into the sandwich,” Zurofsky says. “So Craft between two slices of bread: It was not only the cooking techniques, which no one else was doing, [but also] nothing was processed, we did everything by hand ourselves, and everything made in our central commissary was done by chefs who had been trained and worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and three- and four-starred New York Times restaurants. That was the way to translate a lot of what
Craft stood for.”
’wichcraft’s menu includes upscale items like a Vegetable Frittata with seasonal vegetables for breakfast and the Grilled Flank Steak and Heritage Smoked Ham sandwiches for lunch. Zurofsky says the company doesn’t just source premium ingredients and then throw them in a sandwich; all ingredients are prepared with a chef’s expertise, such as the pork, which is slow-roasted overnight as it would be in a fine-dining setting.
Where ’wichcraft and most other chef-operated brands split from fast-casual trends is that they don’t allow patrons to customize their dishes by walking down an ingredient line.
“Our intention was to make unique combinations, unique menu items, and to some degree—not that we think our customers are incapable of doing this—we think that people are interested in coming to us because they trusted our sense of what combinations worked,” Zurofsky says. “We didn’t want to necessarily give people the choices to put everything together in a sandwich and potentially be disappointed if it didn’t work out.”
Serving these high-quality meals presents several challenges for chef operators, such as keeping prices low while sourcing the best ingredients possible. Zurofsky says customers will have to grow accustomed to $13–$15 checks if they want fast, premium meals, while Barlow notes that Sloco’s average sandwich costs $7.31, but the food costs are as much as three times higher than other sandwich brands.
Executing the high-quality menu is another consideration, as it requires an above-average skill set and training. Most of the chefs entering the limited-service world are recruiting culinary school graduates to work in their kitchens to accommodate that need for talent. Veteran chef Jimmy Schmidt, a founding partner and food consultant with Detroit-based burger concept Moo Cluck Moo, says he needs skilled culinarians to execute the menu he’s designed for the brand, which includes burgers and chicken sandwiches on house-made buns, as well as “Craveables,” which are monthly menu specials that feature seasonal ingredients.
“Everybody has got to be able to cook and help, and everybody wears a culinary jacket, and our starting wage is $15 an hour,” Schmidt says. “It’s a real wage and we’re making all the foods there and all the sauces and aiolis and that type of thing. … The manager of the store is actually a chef, so he’s making a comparable, middle-range chef’s job kind of paycheck. So he’s committed to it.”
The fast-casual industry’s incredible growth and potential to evolve the entire restaurant industry and food supply chain has encouraged culinary schools like the Culinary Institute of America (cia) to embrace it as a viable career choice for students. Ron Hayes, director of career services at the CIA, says the negative stigma of the limited-service industry is starting to wane among students as more high-profile chefs prove its potential.
“Students are becoming much more receptive to that because of the long-term career path,” Hayes says. “You can grow continuously, generally have a decent benefits package, and you have a trajectory as opposed to entering into just one fine-dining restaurant.”
He adds that students—who are trained by the CIA to work in high-volume kitchens—are increasingly intrigued by the opportunity to become entrepreneurs instead of just chefs, with the potential to expand their reach and business acumen through franchising or other growth channels. “I talk with students sometimes and they say, ‘I don’t want to work in a corporate environment.’ Well, Daniel Boulud is a corporate environment, and how many Michelin stars does he have? Thomas Keller, how many Michelin stars? That’s a corporation,” he says. “So there’s definitely some redefining [to do]. But I think as students see the possibilities and see what you can really do, it opens so many doors.”
Serving such high-quality foods, of course, also presents challenges with the supply chain. Chefs in the fast-casual space are determined to use the same quality of ingredients that they use in their full-service eateries, and in a day and age where much of that includes sustainable, organic, or farm-to-table sourcing, finding the ingredients becomes the primary barrier to significant growth.
Bayless has established a strong local supplier presence in the Chicago area by working with them to grow ingredients in the amounts he needs. He says that as his fast-casual concepts grow into new cities, it’s critical that he and his team members work to find local suppliers in those markets who are similarly able to scale up with the business.
“Chipotle does this, too. They’ll go into an area and say, ‘This is our specification; will you grow this for us?’ And maybe it’s just one item. But they get somebody to grow it for them in the quantities that they need for that area,” Bayless says. “And I think that’s the way it’s scalable. It’s not scalable nationally, it’s only scalable regionally or locally. But you have to be willing to grow with the farmers and help grow them.”
Bayless adds that working with local sourcing partners in this way creates some inconsistencies across the system if a brand is in multiple markets. But inconsistencies, he says, aren’t necessarily a bad thing. “I think that’s life, and maybe we have made people expect the wrong thing out of their food if they expect it to always be the same, whether you’re on the Champs-Élysées in Paris or at the Rock N Roll McDonald’s [in Chicago],” he says.
Consistency is also something Barlow has considered with Sloco, which has only one location open but which the chef is hopeful to build into a national chain. Like Bayless, Barlow committed to using only sustainable, local, and organic ingredients, and he works with his sourcing partners to secure what he needs for the shop. To create some semblance of consistency between potential stores in other markets, he says, he wrote the menu in “broad strokes” so that individual stores could be creative with what they offered. For example, instead of the menu stating that a sandwich has lettuce, it says it has “greens,” leaving the door open for the operator to source whatever varieties are in season.
The operating model Barlow designed for potential franchisees or expansion partners includes a central commissary through which a chef prepares all of the foods for the restaurants. “So whatever region we go into, we start with a central store with a commercial kitchen, where I have a chef,” he says. “And I guarantee you, in every city in this country, there’s a chef like me coming from the fine-dining world who’s stoked to see his family and get nights off and … they don’t want to lose the cooking part, but they want to change their hours and change the lifestyle a little bit.”
Barlow adds that as more limited-service brands create sourcing programs similar to those at Sloco, the more opportunities there will be for farmers and other suppliers to expand their own companies around the country.
In looking at the future of the chef-driven brand movement, Zurofsky tries to be realistic about its potential, considering the difficulties in scaling the supply chain and resetting customer expectations. ’wichcraft, for its part, has no plans to become a national chain, but will continue to explore growth opportunities as they come along.
“There’s a lot of work to the food supply system that’s got to happen, and also customers’ expectation that if you want better food, it doesn’t just happen overnight and it doesn’t happen for the same price as it happens at McDonald’s or even Chipotle,” he says. “That’s a really important thing that people don’t quite understand. They understand because it’s got the word fast in front of it, that it’s actually really fast and they expect that because we’re compared to Chipotle, that we’ll serve it at the same price point.”
But Moo Cluck Moo’s Schmidt thinks the potential for chefs to revolutionize the way Americans eat will outweigh any growth concerns, especially as systems grow more efficient and consumers gravitate toward a higher-quality—different—limited-service experience.
“It’s a huge market,” he says. “Right now, there are a lot of great success stories out there, but we’re dwarfed by the behemoth of the fast-food burger industry alone. So there’s lots of room to do it.”