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  • Pizza and ethnic cuisines lend themselves to customer-created entrées.
    Technomic’s Darren Tristano says giving customers the ability to customize dishes creates a health halo “because diners see that they’re eating something fresh.”

    Although most restaurants will change ingredients in an entrée to meet a guest’s request, a growing number of pizza and ethnic eateries are letting diners build their own menu items from scratch.

    “It’s a system that delicatessens and street-food vendors worldwide have used for years. For many consumers, the concept of having restaurant staff assemble fresh, high-quality food in front of you to your design has great appeal,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based market research firm Technomic Inc.

    “The model provides not only interaction and customization, but the ability to view the food—to select food that is visually appealing versus the old-school way, where the food is being prepared behind the steel curtain—is key,” Tristano says.

    Constructing menu items this way, he adds, also gives the restaurant a healthy halo, “because diners see that they’re eating something fresh.”

    The limited-service industry seems to be an ideal vehicle for various types of create-your-own products. The price point is generally less than $8, and just about any type of cuisine can be adapted to this design.

    Just as Subway bases its menu on delis of yesteryear, Chipotle Mexican Grill’s roots are in the early 1990s taquerias of the Mission District in San Francisco, where the chain’s founder, Steve Ells, was working as a line chef at Stars restaurant. Ells, then a recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, closely watched crews at taquerias quickly and efficiently make burritos.

    “They were made in this giant tortilla, [and] everything was on the inside—the rice, the beans, the meats, the salsas—and wrapped in foil,” he recalls in a video on Chipotle’s website. “I had never seen anything like that before.”

    Ells and his vision of the concept went to Colorado, where he grew up. His first Chipotle—the name refers to a smoke-dried jalapeño chile—opened in Denver in 1993. Twenty years later, there are about 1,500 units.

    At Chipotle, customers move along a counter, watching the restaurant’s team on the other side cook and create each guest’s entrée to order in an assembly line. There are a few base ingredients, a choice of proteins, and a variety of house-made toppings and sauces.

    The mantra: “Make it fresh, keep the menu simple and focused, and give customers flexibility to configure those menu items,” says spokesman Chris Arnold.

    Chipotle has made changes over the years, adding burrito bowls and salads to the original tortilla burritos and tacos. In addition to the long-time cilantro-and-lime rice, brown rice has been added as an ingredient, as has a tofu-based protein. The other proteins are grilled chicken and beef and braised carnitas and barbacoa. Toppings include pinto and black beans, a mix of grilled onions and bell peppers, four salsas, shredded cheese, lettuce, sour cream, and, for an extra charge, guacamole.

    Another Denver-based enterprise, Qdoba Mexican Grill, has its own take on the taqueria, including a slightly wider menu that counts several types of build-your-own burritos (queso, San Francisco–style, and tortilla-free), tacos, nachos, quesadillas, and taco salads.

    Qdoba offers two types of rice, two varieties of beans, five proteins, three sauces, six freshly made salsas (a seventh, mango, is offered in the summer), and a half dozen toppings, making thousands of combinations available.

    Founded in 1995, the 600-unit chain has added new ingredients over the years, like whole-wheat tortillas, brown rice, and ancho chile sauce.

    “But we’re still slow-cooking [meats] six to seven hours and hand-shredding the beef and pork,” says Ted Stoner, head chef and director of strategic product development for the chain, a division of Jack in the Box.

    Allowing guests to customize allows them to choose the flavors they want and control the calories and fat they consume. “We’ve seen more interest in healthier items, especially with the dietary concerns out there,” Stoner says. “But the college guys still want a full-sized wrapped burrito. We are all about giving people variety.”

    As with Mexican cuisine, Italian food is a favorite among Americans. That includes pizza, which easily allows customers to have a large choice of ingredients.

    These days, however, some pizza innovators have taken customization a step further, offering more high-quality toppings and a variety of crusts, sauces, and cheeses.

    PizzaRev, a three-unit, Los Angeles–based chain that launched last year, offers nine menued pizzas, but most diners choose to build their own 11-inch pizzas for $7.99 each.

    “We use extraordinary, high-quality ingredients, fresh dough, and cheese ground every day,” says Nicholas Eckerman, chief operating officer. “We call it ‘pizza without compromise.’ We don’t compromise on quality; you don’t compromise on choices.”

    After choosing a thin, regular, or gluten-free Roman-style crust, diners can select one or more sauces (olive oil, red, white, or barbecue) and cheeses (Mozzarella, Feta, blue, and Ricotta). They then choose from among 11 proteins and 17 vegetables.

    The toppings include nontraditional choices like chorizo, anchovies, capers, and artichoke hearts. Once the pizza is assembled, it goes into a wood-fired oven and cooks at high temperatures for just two minutes.

    Choice is also paramount at The Pizza Studio, another L.A. concept that opened its first unit this year. The size, price, and baking method are similar to PizzaRev’s.

    There are four crusts (traditional, whole grain, rosemary herb, and gluten-free), four sauces (tomato, pesto, barbecue, and olive oil), four types of cheese (Mozzarella, Feta, Parmesan, and goat), nine meats, and 13 veggies.

    “People really love the rosemary herb crust,” says Samit Varma, cofounder and president. “We were surprised to see how well it has done. We expected about 75 percent to be traditional, but the rosemary herb is chosen about 40 percent of the time.” Traditional toppings are popular, he says, as are roasted peppers, corn, and chicken sausage.