Industry News | February 21, 2017 | QSR Exclusive Brief

A Split From Conventional Fast Casual

Like Madonna, Cher, Beyoncé, and countless others before them, the Good Food Guys realized that, sometimes, one name is simply all you need. 

Following the example of sister brand Mixt, who shed Greens from its title back in 2016, the group’s Split Bread concept underwent a literal split in its branding recently. In late November, Split—sans the Bread—opened its third unit on Polk Street along San Francisco’s Russian Hill high street corridor.

Leslie Silverglide, CEO and co-founder of the two fast casuals, says the shortened name is a natural fit for the brand’s future. And their latest model is the culmination of this evolution.

The plan, she says, was to essentially split the difference between fine dining and quick service. The name just happened to reflect that. Or at least half of it did.

“We felt like, at first, when we had such a focus on sandwiches and crispy chicken sandwiches and burgers, Split Bread made a lot of sense,” she says. “But then, as we’ve evolved and tried to balance a lot more healthy items on the menu, as well as having just a more well-rounded menu, we just felt like it didn’t fit as well. And as we were working on these more hybridized concepts, we were really hitting on this idea of splitting the difference. So we said, ‘Let’s just go simple and let’s do Split.’ It’s easy to remember.”

The tangible changes are obvious. After ordering from the counter, guests grab a table and wait for the food to arrive. After that, they can continue ordering, whether it’s a glass of wine or another entrée, without ever getting up. A server with a mobile POS roams the floor and takes orders on the fly.

Similar to how Mixt was incubated, the Good Food Guys team developed this plan from personal experience.

Chef Andrew Swallow, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America who got his start at New York City’s famed Gramercy Tavern, along with Leslie, who is his sister, and her husband, David, were headed back from a day of skiing in Tahoe when they shared frustration over the lack of healthy eating options. Thus, the idea for Mixt was born.

In the case of Split’s transformation, the reasoning is even more intimate. The trio actually live—and eat—in the neighborhood.

“It’s something we really felt the neighborhood needed. We live in this fantastic area in San Francisco but there wasn’t really a great neighborhood joint to go to for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. There are nice sit-down restaurants. There are quick takeaway restaurants. But nothing in between where you can go in the range of having a business meeting to having breakfast to being able to take your family for a simple early dinner,” Silverglide says.

There are seven San Francisco, two Los Angeles, and two Rover Dropspot locations of Mixt. Due to its menu and alcohol offerings, Split has a more agile model for expansion but is also more difficult to open, especially with the new blueprint.

Silverglide says it takes more than 30 people to staff the new location, and training is far more involved on both sides. Customers and employees have to get used to the dining model, which is relatively common in Europe but still fresh in the U.S.

Split, like Mixt, has firm culture roots and a very strict take on what it means to eat healthy in fast casual. After starting the company in 2005 and growing to three units, they sold to private equity firm Inventages. Then in 2012, they bought the chain back. The first Split Bread opened that same year.

Sustainable, local, non GMO, and organic are company mottos. The Mixt website states that 102 local ingredients are sourced, 99 percent of waste is diverted from landfills, and over 1,000 pounds of local, sustainable, and organic vegetables are served per year.

At Split, this ethos carries on. The menus—a “modern take on great American classics”—are different at each location. Some signatures, such at the Crispy Chicken Sandwich, Split Burger, and Mandarin Salad can be found throughout, but unique dishes specific to each location are defined by what’s available from regional purveyors. Grilled Hanger Steak, Pan Seared Salmon, and a 10-ounce Grilled Country Porkchop show how Split’s offerings are far from standard walk-in fare.

“What [Chef Swallow] does is he likes to think, ‘I don’t want to do what everybody else is doing. How can I take the ingredients that everybody loves and put them together in unique combinations that you don’t see on anybody’s menu?’” Silverglide says.

Silverglide, who attended Johns Hopkins, earned an MSc at the University of Oxford, and has an MBA from the Stanford School of Business, studied environmental sustainability before delving into restaurants. That’s why the brand’s green message is iron clad.

“It’s not just a personal principle, it’s where I come from,” she says. “So it’s always been one of the core tenets of anything we do as a company. We are always thinking about our footprint, whether it’s from an energy perspective, water conservation, resource use, and more. We take great effort to source our food and be really thorough. It’s something that’s really built into the DNA of the company and something that we don’t sacrifice on.”

For example, when they spread to Los Angeles, the sourcing relationships had to start anew. They also construct units with green materials and take effort to propel those conversations whenever possible.

As for the future, Silverglide says the company is more concerned with reinventing the fast casual model than repeating it, although the tools are in place to do so. “We’re not looking to go and stamp out our restaurants as quickly as possible at the cost of quality and customer experience and being an evolved concept,” she says. “And we love what we do and we want to continue doing this for a really long time. That’s the other part of this. We want to make sure that we’re setting ourselves up for success and have a wonderful team both in corporate and at our restaurants.”

The two concepts give the group multiple paths forward. For now, Silverglide says the plan is to build out the Bay Area, as well as Los Angeles, and Orange County. They are already, however, imagining life outside of The Golden State.

“We see that we’re now set up in a way where we can grow to other regions and other states,” she says. “We’re very excited to go and bring out food to people outside of California.”

By Danny Klein

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