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    The Great Migration

  • Fine-dining veterans are taking their talents to the fast-casual space.

    Of course, once in the fast-casual environment, the fine-dining stalwarts welcome the opportunity to leverage their upscale reputation with a new group of customers.

    “With burger in the name, people see Shula Burger as a more casual experience, but recognize that it comes with the same quality Shula’s is known for,” says Dave Shula, who oversees the entire Shula’s dining portfolio.

    Fine dining’s customer-service principles also frequently outpace the expectations of fast-casual customers. At Shula Burger, draft beers are served in chilled wine glasses, burgers are branded with the Shula name, kitchen workers sport chef’s coats, and the menu carries sommelier-selected wine pairings. Though customers order at a counter, crewmembers deliver food to customers, provide condiments, and serve refills.

    “Once you sit down at Shula Burger, you never need to get up again,” Nietschmann says. “We’ve taken the philosophies of our higher-end brands and applied them to a fast-casual setting.”

    The fast-casual setting especially stands to benefit from fine dining’s unapologetic romanticism of cuisine. One day in early January, for example, Salamunovich and his culinary director at Larkburger worked for 12 hours on a slight change to the burger recipe, eventually finding the solution in a splash of vinegar at the end.

    “When you can bring this type of attention to the food, and do so at a more economical price point, customers can celebrate the level of refinement,” Salamunovich says.

    The idea of bringing fine-dining finesse to a wider audience is part of what lured Bradford Kent into fast casual. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who made a name for himself at Olio Pizzeria and Café in Los Angeles, Kent teamed up with Wetzel’s Pretzel’s cofounders Elise and Rick Wetzel in 2010 to create Blaze Pizza. At first a consultant, Kent grew increasingly hands-on with Blaze Pizza, eventually becoming the concept’s executive chef.

    “With Blaze Pizza, we can feed 1,000 diners a day rather than 100,” Kent says. “For those who love pleasing people with food, that’s quite attractive.” Alluring as the fast-casual segment might be to movers and shakers like Kent, relocation into the fast-casual world isn’t an adventure taken without some reservation and unique challenges. Some fine-dining operators fear they might dilute their upscale brands by jumping into fast food; others express concern about the standardization necessary to succeed in the quick-service environment. While fine dining’s higher prices allow an operator to cover the extra investments in staff and time-consuming techniques, the fast-casual category has no such safety net.

    “You have to pay close attention to every single detail and make sure it’s all as streamlined and efficient as possible,” Salamunovich says.

    Fine-dining lifer George Frangos, who has managed and owned upscale spots on the East Coast for the last two decades, was afraid of the uncertainties of fast casual when he opened Farm Burger in Atlanta.

    “I had no reservations that our concept would work, but I was concerned about the day-to-day operational skills I would need, even something as simple as running a cash drawer. There’s a learning curve here,” says Frangos, who launched Farm Burger in 2010 with business partner Jason Mann.

    Frangos acknowledges he would often grow anxious when he saw a line form, fearful customers would leave rather than wait. “I had to mentally acknowledge that customers were choosing to wait,” he says.

    The move to fast casual also demands a more intense focus on throughput and the ability to get a product into customers’ hands quickly while retaining its integrity. Salamunovich says he’s tested 12 different grills at Larkburger, a trial-and-error process necessary to isolate the right combination of speed and quality.

    Stowell says he was caught off guard by how many more customers he had to serve at Ballard Pizza Company because of the eatery’s lower check averages.

    “It was surprising to go to the register and see that we served 400 people, but had the same sales numbers as the 40-seat restaurant,” he says.

    Whereas fine-dining operators prepare for defined dining periods, fast casual becomes a numbers game that forces operators to assess how they can maximize traffic throughout the day.

    “Once you’re open, you’re open, and you need to be moving people through the lines,” Salamunovich says.

    Staffing is another issue fine-dining operators are forced to adapt to in the fast-casual world. While most are excited to puzzle together the necessary operational changes and menu shifts that can deliver a more economical price point, few want to mess with the customer-service components they know and champion. This, of course, is complicated by quick serve’s industry-high turnover rates and entry-level workforce.

    “It can be a challenge to find staff who will drink the Kool-Aid that is our attention to detail,” Salamunovich says.

    To hammer home the staffing expectations at Shula Burger, employees at the concept’s first location trained at the upscale Shula’s on the Beach, while staff at the second Shula Burger location trained at Shula 347.

    “This gave staff at our first Shula Burger restaurants an immediate feeling of what we’re looking for,” Nietschmann says of the upscale training environment. “We may not be wearing tuxes at Shula Burger, but we’re still looking to provide high-quality service.”

    If fine diners like Shula’s find success in the fast-casual world, many believe the fine-dining-to-fast-casual trend will only quicken, particularly given the benefits of lower start-up costs, operational ease, and diversification.

    “We’re at a real moment now where people in fine dining are looking at new ways to get their product and passion out there … and this move to the fast-casual environment is enticing,” Salamunovich says.

    Schaefer also predicts an acceleration of the movement throughout the nation.

    “We’ve only scratched the surface here in the U.S.,” he says. “There’s an understanding that the right décor and innovative food doesn’t have to come with a lofty price tag.”

    With opportunity and optimism on its mind, Shula’s leaders look to build 15–20 Shula Burger units each year, first in Florida and then expanding out from the Sunshine State.

    “We believe in the Shula Burger concept and its potential to drive our company forward,” Shula says.

    And, perhaps, to finally enter those lofty ranks of fast-casual royalty.