The Chef Revolution

  • As more fine-dining chefs insert themselves into the fast-casual industry, one thing is certain: Limited service will never be the same.  

    The Epicurean Publicist / funky chicken

    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.”