With demand for premium foods in a fast-casual format at an all-time high, more chefs with culinary training and fine-dining experience are migrating to the category, joining or founding multiunit concepts that put high-quality flavors and conscious sourcing practices at the center of what they do.
Nate Weir is one such chef. Weir trained at the Culinary School of the Rockies in Boulder, Colorado, and worked at upscale Boulder restaurants SOBO American Bistro and SALT before joining Denver-based Fast Casual 2.0 concept Modern Market as director of culinary operations. These days, he’s busy developing seasonal dishes and improving the sourcing practices for the 17-unit Modern Market, which is quickly growing in Colorado, Texas, Arizona, and Washington, D.C.
In this exclusive Q&A (edited for clarity), Weir gives QSR a look at his R&D process and explains how chefs can uphold their sourcing and flavor standards in a high-volume, multiunit fast-casual concept.
What does your R&D process look like?
Right now I’m the only person in the culinary department. The food is such a big part of what we try to do, obviously, but there are so many other pieces and hats you have to wear, from sourcing and purchasing to training and the operational aspect of it. I think that’s probably typical for a lot of fast casuals that are up and coming. We have some big success stories, but a lot of us are in this kind of 20–50-unit range and still figuring things out in a lot of ways.
We’re committed to seasonal menus, and we change typically three to four times a year. That’s where a lot of the R&D process really happens, and the chance for innovation. That starts months out. Often times it starts as just a brain dump for me. Coming from my background in more farm-to-table fine dining, creativity comes from, well, what do I have in the walk-in that I could use for a special? I found that really interesting in a fast causal where it’s not really a daily thing, but it’s storing up ideas of, what do we have? What could we execute really well?
Then there’s always, what can we do to stay on trend and have these big flavors? What can we do to keep it approachable, but at the same time introduce people to new flavors? There are all these competing missions that you’re trying to do when you’re conceptualizing a new item. Often times it just ends up being this amalgamation of, “Hey, here’s seven salad ideas.” So that’s what our process looks like. I just kind of come up with a broad shotgun approach to it, then start to narrow it down and think more strategically about what exactly makes sense to put on the menu.
We take these big ideas, we streamline it down a little bit, then I do a tasting with the owners—we’ll taste three or four things from each category, then pick our favorites at that point. The seasonal menu has been really great for us in a couple ways. That’s part of what we want to be as concept, having that seasonal aspect, but operationally it actually makes a ton of sense to operate that way, too. On one hand, it’s a way to test that complexity piece; if we wanted, for instance, salmon—we did salmon not that long ago; we hadn’t had fish on the menu and wanted to try it out—the ability to have an LTO on a seasonal menu is a great chance for us to get to know the product and how it works in our operations and how the complexities fit for us.
Certainly we want to prioritize stuff that has seasonal ingredients, and local when we can. That’s something we try to balance: Just how much local stuff can we use being in Colorado? This time of year (January), I can get storage onions and maybe hydroponic tomatoes. There are not a lot of options for that. It’s a great story to tell and to talk about local, but you have to balance that with what you can actually get.
I think when you think local, often times you think produce, but maybe there are other aspects that you can tell that local story that isn’t necessarily a farmer pulling up out back and dropping off a bunch carrots. We use aspects of that when we have it available. We absolutely will get corn and romaine and carrots and tomatoes and stuff like that from Colorado, but to do that year-round and keep that focus, it’s a fight. What local craft beers can we showcase? We have kombucha on tap. Both in Denver and in Dallas, we’ve been able to find a local kombucha company. It still helps you to tell that story as part of what your concept is, even if the carrots might not be from Colorado right now.
What do customers say about the seasonal approach?
It was a really big surprise for us when we first went to Dallas. In the Denver market, I think people are a little bit ahead of the country in thinking that way, and have a better understanding of fast casual in general, as so many great concepts have come out of here. But the first time we went to Dallas, we had this great seasonal pizza on the menu. It was in August, the end of summer, so we had a fire-roasted local corn, and it was a Bacon Corn Pizza—bacon bits, crème fraîche, roasted corn, fresh basil. Just an awesome pizza. It totally appealed to the Dallas population. We put it on the menu for about six weeks at the first restaurant we opened down there, then we did a seasonal menu change, and people freaked out.
It was really important how we started to talk about that, and it forced us to take a look at it. There’s this one aspect of starting to train your guests to anticipate and expect that. But the nice thing is, again, it ties into the story, because we can say, “Look for this to come back again next summer.” That was a great item, but we believe in eating seasonally and cooking seasonally, and we would rather not do an asparagus pizza in the fall or a corn pizza in the winter. Sure enough, the next year, we brought back that Bacon Corn Pizza, people loved it, and we got all these positive emails from people who were so excited to have it back.
For me, it’s one of the things I really enjoy about Modern Market. My background is more fine-dining kind of stuff, but I don’t think people should have to pay $30–$40 a plate for food that’s thoughtfully sourced and seasonally prepared and stuff like that. That’s what I love about Modern Market; it’s a chance to introduce that ideal of food to a broader spectrum of people. And part of that is going to be education.
Do you lower risk in doing seasonal menus? Does it help you develop new menu items?
Yeah, I think so. It’s an opportunity to learn every time around. So the Bacon Corn Pizza, we brought that back at the end of the summer, that was a great dish. But it doesn’t mean that every time fall comes around I’m going to bring back the exact same fall item. In that sense, it’s given us an opportunity over the five years we’ve been doing this to dial in some different ideas of dishes, even if they’re not the exact same thing.
And I think it does help us with the risk too, because if I have an item … that just doesn’t sell well or the complexity turns out to be too much, well, it’s no problem—in three months it’s out, and we’ll tough it out through then, maybe make some tweaks. But we have a set date we know we can point to when we don’t have to worry about it anymore.
How much leeway do customers give you for outside-the-box flavors?
There’s always your kind of standard go-to items that we know will appeal to anybody. But I think we do have a lot of leeway, and I think we’ve built that trust by consistently doing these things. The way I try to balance it is, I don’t want to put more than one unfamiliar item at a time on a dish, and I want to pair that up with other flavors that are really approachable for people. It’s funny, because things that to me are standard as a chef, I have to keep in mind that a lot of guests may not even be familiar with it.
We did some stuff with escarole on a recent menu—it’s one of my favorite ingredients as a chef. It’s great flavor, a really pleasant bitterness, which makes no sense if you’re not a chef, I guess. But we did it and showcased escarole in two different ways: We did it raw as the lettuce component on a salad, and then we also did it as a wilted, braised escarole that went on a pizza. So it was two great ways to eat the product. I knew it was going to be kind of an interesting one, and something that probably a lot of people weren’t familiar with.
The challenge was, how can I put this on here so it really works well with the rest of the flavor profile of the dish, but still draws people in? On the pizza, we did an awesome herb sausage and roasted garlic—flavors that people might say, “Sausage and roasted garlic? I’m in and I don’t even care what escarole might be.” It gets people in the door to try this thing, and then my hope is that I get the chance to introduce them to a great ingredient that they might not have tried otherwise.
What does seasonal and local sourcing look like for a multiunit concept like Modern Market?
It’s a challenge. It starts early. For us, a lot of it is what we can manage through our current distribution networks. What can we pick up through our broadliners? Sometimes we get questions like, “Why are you getting stuff from Sysco?” or “Why do you get stuff from Shamrock?” We see it as a delivery service; just because we’re getting stuff from Sysco doesn’t mean we’re getting the cheapest bag of lettuce that Sysco carries. They’ll bring us whatever we want them to bring us. In some sense, we’re really proud of some of the sourcing stuff we’ve been able to accomplish by finding smaller, local companies and getting them into some of these big broadline distributers and getting to broaden the reach of some of these local guys.
Like Polidori Sausage, which we work with here in Denver; they’re this awesome family-run company, and they’ve just never been in the broadliner. We love the product, so we went through it and set it up. It takes extra time to do it that way, but on the other hand, it’s a way for us to mitigate our liability because of the food-safety standards that people have to adhere to now in order to get stocked at these broadliners. It kind of makes sure everything is in place, versus that farmer pulling up out back with the pickup truck full of whatever. It’s a great story and fun picture to think about, but when you’re talking about 12–15 restaurants, it’s not realistic that that’s the way it happens.
Recently we started working with this company out of California called Scarborough Farms. They do all of our lettuce now. We were introduced to them through Tender Greens … and we were like, that’s what we want our lettuce to look like and taste like. It took months to set up—we went through and had to figure out the freight, the shipping, everything—but we’re getting multiple trucks a week into the Denver market now with the Scarborough greens through our broadliner. It’s the kind of company we want to be partnered up with; it’s a great story. It might not be local, but it’s what we want to be in terms of the sourcing of the ingredient.
What’s the limit in what’s possible on a fast-casual menu?
I don’t think there’s any limit, to be honest. It goes back to that aspect of approachability as part of it. I think people like the idea of being able to get something other than your burger or fried chicken sandwich, and to play around with stuff. That’s why you have all these great flavors with world cuisines, ethnic foods, and the rise of that. I think people have started to dial into that in the last few years, and the ability to get it in fast-casual concepts is just awesome.
I feel like the sky is the limit in what I’m capable of doing. But at the same time, if my mission is to start to change the way people eat and to introduce people to new things, I think you have to walk that fine line; you can’t just go too over the top with it. The bottom line is, my goal is to have people come back. I want people to come eat at Modern Market instead of going to McDonald’s. If you come to us instead of McDonald’s once a week, I’m pretty thrilled. I started to change the way that you think about food and the way that you eat. Am I going to accomplish that with some crazy off-the-wall thing? Maybe not. But if I have a really awesome sausage pizza that has local ingredients on it and still costs under $10, that’s something I think a lot of people can get behind.
What is your inspiration in the kitchen?
It’ll change from time to time. There have certainly been times that I just want to take one ingredient and I just want to highlight it. Like the escarole, that’s the way that started: I wanted to do something with escarole, and I was going to make an item with it and figure it out. So I came up with these couple of things. That was just starting with this idea of an ingredient that I knew I could get locally for a while.
Sometimes there are just other things at play. Sometimes it’s just, this sandwich is too complex, and how can I do a sandwich that is going to appeal to people in the same way but reduce my complexity? With fast casual, you always have to balance that ability to be able to execute it at volume and consistently between locations. That’s been a big challenge for me as a chef here, to really be an educator as well.
If I tell somebody to pour the oil slowly into the blender when they’re trying to make a vinaigrette, they have no idea what I’m talking about. It’s not just something they learned at culinary school. So I actually have to take the time to educate and explain some of the fundamental reasons behind this, to get my staff to be able to do it. That’s always in the back of your mind: How can I do something that’s really awesome and use these great ingredients, but how can I do it in a way that my team is going to be able to do a really great job with?