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.
Another take on Italian cuisine is offered at Piada, which features build-your-own, tortilla-like flatbread piadas, bowls with freshly cooked angel hair pasta, and chopped salads. These are topped with a grilled ingredient, veggies, and a sauce. “We are a chef-driven company, and our line is filled with a lot of fresh ingredients [and] fresh vegetables. That is conveyed to the diners,” says Jamy Bolling, corporate chef and partner for the three-year-old, 10-unit chain based in Columbus, Ohio.
Among the grilled items are chicken, Italian sausage, salmon, steak, and calamari. There are hot and cold sauces, from the red pomodoro and spicy diavolo to red pepper and fresh basil pestos, along with 18 toppings, such as artichokes and eggplant caponata.
As with other build-your-own-style restaurants, Piada encourages interaction between the crew and customers to help diners understand which ingredients go together.
“We want our team to treat people like they’re guests at home,” Bolling says. “We put together a chef’s menu on cards to try to guide them, but we also want our staff to help walk people through the line, suggesting combinations or talking about their favorites.”
Helping customers choose ingredients is even more important at Mediterranean assembly-line restaurants, where some items are not familiar to some Americans.
When Roti Mediterranean Grill launched in Chicago in 2007, the idea was to “take this type of food and put it in this format that is really resonating with consumers,” says marketing director Peter Nolan.
Like other create-a-meal restaurants, Roti, which has 17 units in three markets, features several entrée options: a sandwich with pita pocket or laffa wrap, a rice plate with three sides, or a salad.
Chicken or steak shawarma (meat on a spit), falafel, or roasted vegetables are added, plus any of five sauces (including tahini and the secret house S’hug spicy sauce), sides like couscous, and toppings such as Feta cheese and olives.
Roti offers set menu items that many first-timers try, Nolan says, in case they don’t know much beyond hummus and pitas. “They can be confused if they aren’t familiar with Mediterranean food, so this is a safe haven. The next time they may experiment.”
This type of cuisine also works well “because the Mediterranean diet is very popular in today’s environment,” says Bob Bafundo, vice president of company and franchise operations at Denver-based Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill.
“There’s a mixture of fresh vegetables, fruits and grains, and salads and sauces,” he says. “Variety is built into the Mediterranean diet, and our menu allows you to choose a little of this or that, giving people a balance of proteins and grains.”
Most customers select the create-your-own entrée options, selecting from among a white or wheat pita, laffa, or a plate with sides. There are seven proteins, including shawarmas, falafel, and hummus. As Garbanzo has grown to 21 units in six states since 2008, it has changed or added some items, including the rollout of kabobs last year and replacement of one sauce that did not appeal broadly with the better-known Greek tzatziki sauce.
Chipotle’s Ells has said the build-your-own model can work with various cuisines, and he has taken that notion to the Asian category with the company’s creation of ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, which features flavors from China, Thailand, and other nations in that region. But even before ShopHouse launched its first unit in 2011, some other create-your-own restaurants featuring Asian flavors had sprouted up.
Sushi concept How Do You Roll? got its start in Austin, Texas, in 2008 after cofounder Yuen Yung had 30 minutes for lunch and wanted sushi but couldn’t find any place serving it quickly.
The company now has 12 units in four states.
Unlike the typical build-your-own concept, where customers pay at the end of the line, How Do You Roll? starts with the sales station. Customers get a ticket with their order and take it to one of several rolling stations, where a chef creates the sushi roll, bowl, or cone.
“The high sellers are tuna and salmon, then shrimp,” Yung says. “It doesn’t matter where you are, those are universal. Chicken and beef fall right behind those.” The number of guests who opt for vegetarian rolls or bowls continues to grow, he says.
Food inspired by the Indian subcontinent is behind the cuisine at Merzi, a Washington, D.C., restaurant that opened in 2010. “It is a very healthful, flavorful cuisine that is more of a European-Indian style,” says Qaiser Kazmi, the eatery’s founder.
Guests first choose a base (balsamic rice bowl, flatbread naan bowl, roti wrap, warm vegetables, or romaine lettuce), and then a protein (grilled or rotisserie chicken, beef, or lamb) that determines the entrée’s price. Next are sauces and chutneys.
“There are some ingredients that may not go well together, so it’s important that our employees know what works and what doesn’t,” Kazmi says. “If someone chooses a wrap and wants a lot of sauce, that could be a problem because it will leak.”
Asian Box is a newer entry, having opened its first unit last year. With influences from Vietnam and Thailand, the three-unit, San Francisco–area chain makes most items from scratch and gets many ingredients from local farmers.
“Ours is like a Vietnamese street stall,” says chief executive Frank Klein, who comes from a full-service restaurant background. “We don’t keep anything in steam trays because we don’t believe Asian food holds well.”
The name comes from the way an entrée is built: in a box. It begins with brown or jasmine rice, Asian vegetables, or chilled rice noodles, followed by a spiced meat or tofu. It’s then finished with toppings and sauces, including tamarind vinaigrette and sriracha.