Aaron Noveshen is a fine-dining chef with a business degree from the University of California at Berkeley. In the 1990s, he cofounded the chain World Wrapps, and, in 2003, he started another restaurant company called Pacific Catch Westcoast Fish House, which has since grown to eight restaurants. In 2002, Noveshen established The Culinary Edge, a food and beverage innovation consultancy based in San Francisco. And in 2016, the Culinary Edge team launched Starbird, a chicken-focused fast casual that already boasts four locations in Northern California and a fifth on the way in 2019. QSR talked with Noveshen about the concept and how he and his team have set it up for success.

From consulting to a concept

Our team here at The Culinary Edge has a passion for making an impact in the restaurant industry. We wanted to do for ourselves what we have done for others and start a restaurant company. We thought improving fast food was the biggest need in our country, and that comes from the ingredients, the food quality, and the guest experience. From a design and interaction standpoint and also from a convenience play, we wanted to meet our consumers where they want to be met—whether it’s from the counter, the car, or the couch.

Team members are also owners in Starbird. All tenured staff of The Culinary Edge get an equity share of the businesses we incubate. We wanted to help them learn more about the difference between the dollars-for-hours business and what it means to build a company, something that has long-lasting value.

It’s helped our team have greater empathy in the work we do because they’re experiencing the same need states that our clients do on a daily basis, and they get to apply those learnings to our work.

Bird first

We took a look in the marketplace. The burger really had a good run for about 10 years of burgers being improved. There’s a lot of better-burger places out there. So we asked, What’s next? What do we see trending over the next 10 years?

It was very clear that chicken was the most ripe for a makeover. Chicken sort of leans toward a Southern appeal that is heavy and greasy. But fried chicken is also embraced by many cultures, and so we have a real urban sensibility to our menu and the flavors that we serve.

We tried more than 100 different recipes to actually formulate our chicken. We have a proprietary brine that we use. We source from California, all 100 percent antibiotic-free, local chicken. We handbread and dredge our chicken then we cook in 100 percent brown rice oil, which creates a really light, crispy, non-greasy fry.

Our chicken happens to be gluten-free, but we didn’t set out to create a gluten-free product. When we did our testing, we found that the breading and batter that we created with some of the gluten-free flours was better than the chicken that we made using traditional wheat flour.

Myriad menus

We basically have four categories: Between Bread, which are our sandwiches; Over Greens, which are our salads; In a Box, which are our tender boxes that we serve with nine different house-made sauces every day; and then finally we do are tacos, called In a Tortilla. Our tacos serve as a great way for consumers to try a couple of different flavors to make a meal. It’s great for a snack and also dinner, whereas sandwiches really are more lunch-leaning.

If there’s anything that we’re really proud of, it’s our salads. We have the most passionate folks around our salads. A lot of that comes from all the fresh California produce that we use, the fact that we really believe that vegetables are a good thing, and our chicken pairs so well with our salads.

I really crave our Chicken Chop salad. It’s our No. 1 product and is the absolute balance between crispy, tangy, a little salty, a little sweet, creamy with fresh avocado, and crunchy with tortilla strips.

Ensuring success

It’s important to have clarity of what makes you differentiated. Don’t forget that it’s all about the food at the end of the day. People come to restaurants for a lot of reasons, but ultimately, they’re being fed, nurtured, and having entertainment value through what they’re eating. Oftentimes, that can become an afterthought.

For us, it’s really just all about the chicken. Attention to detail in making the most perfect chicken is the key to our success. A lot of people like to throw numbers out there concerning growth. We want to open restaurants in a very strategic and smart way. We don’t want to grow just for growth’s sake. We’ll have steady yet thoughtful growth over the next couple of years.

Business Advice, Fast Casual, Story, Starbird