The restaurant industry, and fast casual in particular, is saturated. It seems every month brings word of a new concept in every category: poke, tacos, burgers, salads, juice, desserts ad infinitum. The most successful may dominate a particular region, but few clinch that nationwide footprint anymore. With competition fiercer than ever, expanding restaurants must have some special quality—an X factor, if you will—to set them apart from the rest.

These differentiators run the gamut. For some, offering hands-on classes is the ticket to fostering a loyal following. For others, late-night hours provide customers with a hangout spot when other eateries are closed. Across the board, the most successful operations double down on experience, marrying their brands to something more than the food they serve.

The brands that follow have found their proverbial golden goose to turn out strong business. It’s both a challenge and opportunity for others to embark on their own quest for one-of-a-kind greatness.

Setting a high bar

As limited service becomes more upscale, many fast casuals are expanding their menus to include craft beer and signature cocktails. Few, however, have gone to such lengths as Curry Up Now to transform a bar program into a standalone entity.

When the Bay Area brand opened its first brick-and-mortar location in 2011, the owners obtained a liquor license just to “sit on it and see what happens,” says cofounder and CEO Akash Kapoor. A few years later, the extra paperwork proved downright prescient when sister concept Mortar & Pestle made its debut. The bar shares space with the original Curry Up Now in San Mateo, but from the very beginning it boasted a separate name and entryway.

“Everybody you’d speak to—the experts—were like, ‘There’s never been a fast casual with a craft cocktail bar.’ That’s even more motivation,” he says.

Kapoor wasn’t a cocktail aficionado—he preferred beer and the occasional whiskey—until his travels introduced him to higher-caliber offerings and what he calls “the art of the balanced cocktail.” Instead of saccharine mixed drinks, Mortar & Pestle takes its cues from the best of speakeasies; bold flavors and spices intermingle with various spirits for a decidedly nuanced end product.

With more than two dozen signature cocktails, it’s an extensive menu that plays up complexity, unlike Curry Up Now. For example, the Mumbai Tai blends garam masala orgeat with Indian rum, curacao, and bitters, while Ambika’s Grove combines gin, sumac, egg white, mango, and bitters.

“We’ve simplified how Indian food is done and made it easy to order and things like that,” Kapoor says. “For the cocktails, it’s the complete opposite. We’ve got probably 30 or 40 different spices that we stock, syrups that we make, shrubs that we make.”

Mortar & Pestle has its own selection of signature bar snacks, including an Indian take on nachos and elote, but bar patrons can order off the Curry Up Now menu and vice versa. In light of this, it begs the question why Kapoor and his team chose to distinguish the two in the first place. After all, other premium fast casuals have incorporated specialty libations and even bar space into their operating models without going to the trouble of establishing an entirely new brand. Part of it, Kapoor says, is a matter of semantics—what intuitively sounds like a watering hole and what does not—and how it can affect sales.

“I didn’t want people to say, ‘Oh, we’re at Curry Up Now; let’s have a cocktail.’ That’s an afterthought,” Kapoor says. “The only way you can do a good cocktail program is if you have a lot of bartenders and talented people, and for that you need volume. Otherwise you’re stuck with boring cocktails.”

Mortar & Pestle has two Bay Area locations within existing Curry Up Now properties, and a third combo store is opening soon. Last year, the company secured several multiunit franchising deals across the country. A few forthcoming locations in Atlanta and San Diego are slated to include Mortar & Pestle. Kapoor estimates that those cobranded units will account for 30 percent of company growth. The possibility of Mortar & Pestle some day having solo locations of its own is not off the table, but for now it’s the duo’s differences that really set the company apart.

“Think about how different the two concepts are, yet they work together very well without confusing people,” Kapoor says. “I’m super proud of it.”

Night owl operators

This idea of the third place has become a holy grail for some limited-service restaurants—just look at Starbucks and its ongoing mission to become the ultimate hangout spot. Not only are customers more likely to make additional purchases when they linger, but they’re also inclined to have a special affinity for any brand fulfilling that need. One unexpected but perhaps winning approach involves rethinking when people use the third place.

“We want to be that place in the community where people come and hang out,” says Paul Tuennerman, CEO of New Orleans–based hot-dog chain Dat Dog. “Every location really takes on a personality based on the community in which it resides. The restaurant that stays open the latest, sometimes as late as 7 a.m. the next day, is our location on Frenchmen Street. Our philosophy is that there are people out and about and looking for a place to eat and drink. We want to be open.”

Of course, the Big Easy is renowned for its night scene, but Dat Dog’s night-owl hours extend beyond the French Quarter. The Lafayette and College Station, Texas, stores keep the doors open until 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., respectively, on weekends.

In New Orleans, the Freret Street location welcomes a mix of starter families and college students; the former usually arrive earlier in the day and even hold children’s birthday parties on-site during weekends, while the latter are more likely to visit later. Although the official hours of operation only go as late as 10 p.m., Tuennerman says that particular store can stay open as late as 1 a.m. depending on the occasion and general goings-on.

Dat Dog’s fluid business hours may be too unpredictable for some, especially given the need to find staffers who will work graveyard shifts, but it works for the micro-chain. After all, Tuennerman points out, Dat Dog hires employees who might otherwise be frequenting the restaurant as customers; it’s another third-place point for the brand.

“We always say, ‘Hire your customer.’ Nobody knows your brand better than the people that patronize it day in and day out,” Tuennerman says, adding that the brand’s director of marketing started as a customer before becoming an employee and then a member of the executive team. “She has a really good grasp on the brand. She is our consummate customer demographic.”

Intuitively, the relatively high check averages should hamper late-night business. After all, those hours are usually the domain of value-driven quick-service chains (many with drive-thru service) in which customers can load up for under $10. For comparison, Dat Dog averages about $17.75 per guest.

“It is a premium product. We spend an inordinate amount of time focused on it,” Tuennerman says. In fact, the brand raised prices 3.5 percent in March and has yet to receive complaints. “Whether you’re coming in at 11 a.m., 11 p.m., or 1 a.m. … we work diligently to deliver that same experience, and that’s why folks don’t bat an eye [at the prices].”

Class is in session

In some cases, making a brand stand out starts with rethinking consumers’ relationship to the product in question. For New York–based Woops!, on-site workshops have added a new dimension to how guests interact with the brand’s assortment of pastries and confections, most notably the dainty—and notoriously difficult to bake—macaron, a meringue-based treat.

“We were getting questions from customers on how to make macaron. And then our chef wanted to get out of the kitchen and have more communication with customers,” says Tal Avivi, Woops! cofounder and chief design and creative officer. “It was our wish to be more than just a product brand. … It was more about experiencing the product, understanding how you bake it. It’s a very fussy and very temperamental product, so we hope that with the workshop, more customers understand why it’s such a special product.”

Since opening in 2012, Woops! has ballooned to more than 50 kiosks and bakeshops across the U.S. Following a redesign to better accommodate special activities, the Upper East Side location began offering macaron and babka workshops last year. At about 400 square feet, that shop is the smallest of the brand’s six New York locations. As a result, workshop registration is limited to about 10 participants, but given the complex craftmanship macaron require, the small size is an asset. Each workshop runs about $150 per person and lasts three hours.

“Our chef is very thorough and informative. She’s there to teach people how to do it. Of course, it becomes a social event as well,” Avivi says of executive chef Arbel Snir. “She walks everyone through the whole process step by step. There isn’t a lot of fancy-schmancy stuff. If you want to learn how to make macaron, this is the place to do it.”

Although the intensive classes are a relatively new offering, Woops! is no novice to hosting hands-on events. A couple of months ago, the brand held its third-annual Easter-themed class where participants decorated macaron instead of the traditional egg. The class, along with birthday parties and other special events, can take place at bakeshops systemwide since they don’t require specialty kitchen equipment. Indeed, the constraints of launching workshops across the country lie in the number of instructional tools and instructors, rather than space limitations.

“If we were to roll it out at other locations, we would have to probably do the demo classes, because it’s more of a logistical issue than anything else, like having to have 10 mixers [at each bakeshop],” Avivi says. “The classes we could do more easily would be kids’ classes in which there’s no use of mixers.”

The workshops geared for children ages 4–10 only run about an hour and cost less (about $55 per participant), but they add a new component and revenue stream to the business, as do options to host macaron classes at off-site locations.

Still, Avivi finds value in how the workshops forge client relationships, not marginal profits. And even if there aren’t plans to expand the intensive, three-hour workshops beyond the one New York City location, Woops! plans to keep interactive activities and community engagement as brand cornerstones.

“Our main purpose is to educate people and increase awareness for the product and how great it is for gifting and just enjoying with friends and family. This is just another way for us to do that,” Avivi says.

From cubicle to café

The rise of the gig economy has led some restaurants to partner with companies like WeWork and Spacious, converting their establishments into work spaces for self-employed and remote workers by day before changing back to foodservice for the dinner daypart. That’s not really an option for limited-service brands given the hours of operation. Many cafes also balk at the idea of these patrons taking up precious real estate for hours on end.

On the other hand, newcomer Graze & Gather is embracing a synergistic model. Located in a mid-size business park, the fast casual encourages on-site desk jockeys and visiting employees to work from the space—even if they already have a workspace a few floors above. “We are a company that does focus on feeding people while they’re at work. We’re not trying to chase people out of the space; we encourage them to stay. It’s really why the space was created,” says Ron Serluco, senior vice president of Eurest. The corporate foodservice provider launched Graze & Gather in Westminster, Colorado, earlier this year.

At 2,600 square feet, the café has workspace for 46, and patio revamping plans could increase that capacity. The interior calls to mind a sleek Starbucks infused with corporate ethos. Sofas and soft chairs are more structured than the usual coffeeshop loungers—ideal for formal meetings and interviews. Instead of wobbly and circular, individual tables are square and steady while long, coworking tables accommodate larger groups.

“It’s a very pleasant, efficient space to be in. It’s got WiFi and power,” Serluco says.

Graze & Gather is nestled within one of the eight buildings that comprise Westmoor Technology Park, located in the Denver suburbs. While workers in metropolitan areas or large business parks often have a number of dining options, such options are scarce—if not nonexistent—in mid-size office parks like Westmoor. That, Serluco says, is where Graze & Gather saw an opening.

“Typically you have to get in your car and drive 15–20 minutes to have lunch. You still have the same demand as larger suburban office buildings, but you haven’t been able to experience that because of the size of the facility you’re in,” Serluco says. “If there is food in those environments, it’s more of a traditional, small deli operation. Those can be nice, but they don’t have much variety.”

Graze & Gather is walking distance from the majority of those offices and then just a two-minute drive from the farthest two. In terms of food, it punches above its weight. The extensive menu includes an elevated breakfast burrito, signature salads, personal Neapolitan pizzas, gourmet burgers, and premium sandwiches like the Steak and Arugula on sourdough and the Buffalo Cauliflower Wrap.

Even though Graze & Gather is only a few months into its operation, the team is already working on other ways to mold itself to the more fluid workplace of the future. Already the brand has its own ordering app and catering program, and hosts after-work, private gatherings. It’s too soon to make a call on delivery, but the added service isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

For now, one certainty is that Graze & Gather is wholly dedicated to its niche, bringing a bit of the gig economy to the standard office building eatery.

“We wanted that welcoming environment, and that truly was the focus of the space besides having great food. It wasn’t fast food where we were trying to get people in and out quickly; it was just the opposite of that,” Serluco says.

Consumer Trends, Fast Casual, Menu Innovations, Restaurant Operations, Story, Curry Up Now, Dat Dog, Woops!