Menu Innovations | October 2016 | By Amelia Levin

5 Fine-Dining Chefs Changing Fast Casual

Chefs extend their fine-dining experience to fast-casual concepts.
Chef Cameron Grant brings his culinary creativity to his Chicago fast casual Animale. Animale

Everyone knows fast casual has been booming. But today, an even more niche segment within fast casual is growing just as fast. Call it “fast casual 2.0,” “elevated fast casual,” or “fine fast,” but these new concepts—many of which were started by chefs—focus on fine dining–quality food at more affordable prices and in sleek but still casual, everyday, and approachable dining environments.

For these chefs—and, in some cases, the restaurateurs with whom they’ve partnered—fast casual 2.0 concepts open up an alternative revenue stream to their pre-existing fine-dining restaurants. Instead of high check averages and bar tabs, these concepts bring in revenue through volume. They also tend to have lower labor and overhead costs because of the more casual service and dining atmosphere, which together help make more profit potential.

That being said, it takes some finesse to balance higher-quality food with speed of service and efficient, consistent execution day in and day out. From combining affordable ingredients in playful ways to experimenting with well-planned prep work and cross-utilizing menu items, here are tips from five fast casual 2.0 concepts on how to do premium fast-casual fare well.

Animale

At Animale in Chicago, guests order at a front counter, but if they want more food or drinks, they can flag down servers roaming the dining room with hand-held tablets that send the orders immediately to the kitchen. Orders typically take less than 10 minutes to produce.

When developing the menu, chef Cameron Grant had to balance culinary creativity with carefully planned execution and prep work. This has translated into handmade pasta dishes; creative sandwiches like the Carbonara with house-made pancetta, creamed caramelized onions, Parmesan, and a sunny-side-up egg; and a variety of small plates like arancini (risotto balls) and bacon-wrapped sweet breads with Belgian endive leaves dabbed with a touch of spicy chile sauce and a sweeter mustard honey drizzle to balance everything out.

Even simple, thick-cut fries (which Animale calls Ferocious Puppies) come with different toppings like pancetta, peppered onions, Calabrian chilies, arugula, Fontina cheese, and a yolky, sunny-side-up egg binding everything together in an Italian poutine of sorts.

At Osteria Langhe, Grant is well known for his handmade pastas, so he wanted to carry that over to the fast-casual concept. But to do so, he has to prepare the pastas ahead of time. He makes the gnocchi and freezes it, popping it in boiling water just before service. Homemade paparadelle is dried for longer-term storage.

Grant has also experimented with using more affordable off-cuts of meat in delicious ways, like wagyu beef tongue with puttanesca ragu and garlic crostini, and tripe with pancetta and jalapeño green chile and a sunny-side-up egg wrapped in a farinata, or chickpea pancake.

“We try to keep it simple, but do something unique. It’s easy to get bored, so people are willing to take a few risks,” he says.

Catering to families and kids is also part of the game in the fast casual 2.0 segment. As such, the kids’ menu is not exempt from some creative menu development. Knowing what it’s like to dine out with his own kids, Grant developed a simple menu with a grilled cheese, burger, and pasta. But that grilled cheese uses Fontina and Parmesan on fresh-baked ciabatta bread, the burger is like a miniature adult version with premium ingredients, and the buttered papparadelle and tomato sauce gnocchi is house-made. He’s made sure to train his cook staff to get the children’s orders out before the adults’, too.


Taco Bamba

Chef Victor Albisu of Washington, D.C.’s Del Campo doesn’t hold back when it comes to fine-dining ingredients and preparation at his fast casual Taco Bamba, even if it means scaling back on other amenities like extra seating and table service. Tacos are a competitive space, so he knows he needs to present a point of differentiation.

“I think people are much more into what’s authentic nowadays, and I feel people deserve to eat good food whenever,” Albisu says. “To me, there are no limitations; we look at what we do as building little dishes in a tortilla and creating experiences that open your eyes when you bite them. We’re more aggressive, memorable flavors. Everything has to be seasoned properly, and chicharrones have to be crispy and crackly, and everything has to be a 10.”

He also tries to present the more “unusual” tacos like spicy goat and beef tongue in more inviting ways, balancing them with simpler carne asada tacos people recognize.

“I think people come in and they’re kind of intimidated by some of the ingredients,” he says. “But then they try it because they trust us, and now they love it.”

Albisu keeps up the speed of service by eschewing customization like other taco joints and by playing the music loud to keep the energy levels up in the kitchen, where staff churn out hundreds of tacos a day.


Good Stuff Eatery

Developed eight years ago by Spike Mendelsohn, Good Stuff Eatery was ahead of the fast casual 2.0 curve. The restaurant, which has five locations among Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Saudi Arabia, offers 13 burgers and 10 milkshakes along with fries and salads.

But these aren’t just any burgers.

“We try to do a little more chef-inspired hamburgers and milkshakes, with higher-quality ingredients and more creativity,” says Max Albano, corporate executive chef at Good Stuff.

The Colletti’s Smokehouse burger, for example, has applewood bacon, sharp Vermont Cheddar, fried Vidalia onion rings, and a chipotle Cheddar sauce, while the Prez Obama burger comes with applewood bacon, onion marmalade, Roquefort cheese, and a horseradish mayo. Milkshake flavors include fun flavors like toasted marshmallow, Milky Way malt, cookies and cream, soursop (a tropical fruit) strawberry, salty caramel kiss, and more.

“We try to take our knowledge from fine-dining restaurants and apply it to the quick-serve concept to keep business current and fresh,” Albano says, noting his and Mendelsohn’s past experience, which includes the French bistro Bearnaise next door to the Good Stuff Eatery corporate headquarters in D.C. “Part of that is finding the best ingredients we can and using more creativity to stay competitive against other burger concepts that might be more limited in their menus.”

The team simplifies the execution by cooking all the burgers on one 48-inch flattop grill and sending them to a central expo, where staff members make sure all the different toppings are added correctly. Albano also prefers employees that have never worked in restaurants before so they can be trained to do any job at any time and share work. He reserves more highly trained staff for prep work, however, so they can concentrate on details and stay organized.


Beefsteak

It isn’t just convenience and value that rule customers’ quick dining decisions today, and that fact has fueled the popularity of Beefsteak, a fast casual created by renowned chef José Andrés where farmers-market–quality vegetables take center stage in veggie-centric bowls.

“Fast casual as a segment seems to be so popular because people now know they can get a great-tasting meal fast; they no longer have to settle for the old cheap fast-food model,” says Pat Peterson, executive chef and vice president of Washington, D.C.–based ThinkFoodGroup, Beefsteak’s parent company.

Beefsteak strives to prove it’s possible to eat healthfully and deliciously at the same time. Composed bowls come packed with colorful local produce like yellow squash, potatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, and a garlic-spiked yogurt dressing with crunchy radish and pumpkin seeds. A more Korean-inspired, bibimbap-like bowl comes with rice, corn, carrot, cabbage, edamame, bok choy, kimchi, a soy ginger dressing, and optional poached egg. There are also a handful of salads and a tomato “burger” with pickled red onions, sprouts, and capers on an olive oil brioche bun.

“Being a chef-driven brand, food quality with a unique spin had to be in the mix,” Peterson says. “We just needed to figure out how to express our craft in a $9 bowl that is truly unique in a heavily saturated segment.”

Balancing higher-quality ingredients like these with reasonable pricing is part of the art of the fast casual 2.0 movement.  

“It’s a bit of trial and error, to be honest,” Peterson says. “We started by picking a price point and an ‘anything goes’ selection process, because we wanted a clean read on what people really wanted. We were surprised to discover most people tend to build their own meals and customize versus buying something we composed for them. Then, as we executed and fine-tuned the financial model, we had to start experimenting with what people are willing to pay extra for—what has incremental value perception and what doesn’t.”

Overall, it’s important to closely target the desired check average to balance price with volume, he adds. “Then start experimenting with specific measurements for your desired results; read and react to them,” Peterson says.


Honor Society

Chef Josh Chesterton, a newcomer to Honor Society, has focused on picking ingredients carefully to be able to maximize their use throughout the menu. The Denver-based fast casual 2.0 concept focuses on fresh, seasonal dishes and wood-fired pizzas with counter service, although there is a full-scale bar serving craft cocktails.

“It’s really about simplifying the food, which revolves more around fresh ingredients and not manipulating them too much,” Chesterton says. “But the biggest benefit to this restaurant style is multi-utilization of everything.”

For example, Chesterton makes a marinade for chicken and steak that also becomes the base for the chimichurri. When certain vegetables are in season, like corn, he’ll use that for multiple menu items so he can prepare larger batches of the product at a time. “I look at it as one prep, but with little modifications here and there,” he says.

Using small but elegant touches like micro greens for garnish and leveraging playful flavor combinations helps elevate the dishes, as well. This summer, Honor Society added a salad with cauliflower and broccoli tossed in a house-made romesco sauce, and an English cucumber with cilantro, fresno chilies, and a slightly sweet homemade poppy seed dressing with extra vinegar for a pickling effect.

Cross-utilization can be used to control waste, as well. “Any leftover food becomes something else,” Chesterton says. “If we have extra steak, we cut that up and use it in a breakfast burrito with some vegetables from the night before. Leftover chicken from the buffalo chicken pizza can be used for salads. And we use all our corn cobs and vegetable scraps to make flavorful stock as the base for our soups.”

This helps minimize storage but maximize menu use. “We don’t have a huge walk-in here because nothing is kept for more than a day or two, max,” he says. “This really benefits the guest, because they are getting super-fresh food.”

Having worked at the renowned Blue Hill at Stone Barns, owned by chef Dan Barber, Chesterton knows how to cultivate relationships with farmers to get the best quality ingredients at better prices. He’ll buy whole cuts that can be manipulated into just as tasty menu items as prime cuts. Instead of a filet, he serves a shoulder tenderloin cut that’s buttery when not overcooked.

And careful prep planning remains key. “Coming from fine dining, you’re cooking everything to order, and all the plates have a lot of touches and assembling and garnishing,” he says. “In fast fine, we’re still making great food, but some things are already semi-prepared. We’ll get the fried chicken and steaks cooking off in batches just before service and re-fire batches when we get low to keep things moving.”

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