Build-your-own menus may not be new to the limited-service world, but Pat Peterson, executive chef at Beefsteak, believes that a successful chef-driven fast casual can and should be centered on giving guests exactly what they want. That’s why Beefsteak features build-your-own veggie bowls.
In his work for five-unit Beefsteak—part of restaurateur José Andrés’ Washington, D.C.–based ThinkFoodGroup—Peterson pairs customization with high-quality ingredients, fast service, and an accessible price to create a concept that puts vegetables front and center.
Here, Peterson weighs in on why the bowl concept has been so successful for Beefsteak and how the team effectively meshes customization with a veggie-centric menu.
Why is the build-your-own component important to Beefsteak?
Customization is important to the consumer. When we opened Beefsteak, we expected 30 percent of guests would customize and 70 percent would order from the menu, but it was actually the opposite. That customization piece is a huge part of this brand. Customers want the flexibility to build their own bowls.
When I walk in the dining room, I see guests that come in several times a week and get something different every visit. They can stick with the anchor ingredients in the bowl and come in four or five times a week to get a nutritionally dense meal, but one time it will be a spicy Italian dish and the next it will be kimchi.
Why did the team want to make a veggie-centric restaurant?
Beefsteak is not necessarily trying to be vegetarian or vegan or healthy, but we are really centering on vegetables. And that’s José’s vision: that vegetables can be center of the plate and they can be delicious.
We try to “vegicate” people without being preachy, but we’re trying to make the veggies so good from a taste and texture standpoint that the fact that they are veggies is incidental. If you want meat, we have a fantastic chicken sausage from a local charcuterie that guests can throw on their bowls, or a poached egg or dill-smoked salmon. But if you’re vegetarian or vegan, we have plenty of options to build a great bowl.
What is different about this concept?
There are always four things in fast casual that everyone tries to hit—speed of service, price point, flavor, and good for you, or at least not so bad for you. These concepts are really key in fast casual, and for most restaurants it’s pick two. You can have fast service at a good price point, but the food may not taste that great or be good for you. If you have good-for-you food served fast, it might be expensive. Beefsteak was a really unique idea when I started talking to José and the group about coming on board because it puts a lot of those things together.
It’s time to put those things together. Just because food is done quickly doesn’t mean it’s done poorly. We can get this message out there, help people enjoy the experience of vegetables, and take away taboos that we learned when we were younger.
Sometimes when I am in a restaurant, especially a vegetarian or vegan concept, and watching everyone eat, I just see customers moving through with ear buds and [eating vegetables] like they have to do it—like they have to power through it. When we build a bowl, I want people eating to the bottom looking for that last flavor nugget.
How do you elevate those vegetables to serve as the star of the bowls?
If I think about the veggies I grew up with, they were overcooked and bland, and the texture was off, and texture is really important. At Beefsteak, we think about what the best preparation for this particular item is and how we can layer that to make ingredients sing so the whole piece sounds good.
Were there any special considerations that had to be made for the build-your-own concept?
First, where we put things physically in our line is designed around layering them in a way that makes sense. Almost by attrition we’re helping guests build their bowl properly, just by when items are encountered in the line.
Second, if you allow your guests to compose, you have to be thoughtful about the overall experience. I have made a lot of great-tasting foods that clash with something else on the menu, so I toss those out. I generate far more ideas than I use because we toss out things that are good but don’t provide that safe haven. We want customers to know they will get a delicious bowl no matter what they pick.