Humanely raised flank steak with a house-made au jus.
Wood-fired, milk-braised pork with an herb sauce and Meyer lemon chutney.
Chicken tikka masala slow-cooked in tomato, coriander, yogurt, and spices and served in a warm tortilla.
These are not dishes with $25 price tags served in swanky fine-dining atmospheres. Sure, they’re designed and cooked by chefs. And yes, they’re made of high-quality ingredients sourced seasonally, often locally. But they’re served in a counter-service setting with prices hovering around $10–$12, and they offer a peek into the world of chef-driven fast casuals that are redefining the flavor possibilities in the foodservice world.
Chefs have flocked to fast casual in the last five years, interested in the category for its potential to reach a much larger swath of customers than in the fine-dining sector, as well as the opportunity to become the next
Danny Meyer or Steve Ells—industry titans with significant sway and deep pockets. Mostly, though, chefs are interested in fast casual because it gives them the opportunity to introduce the masses to the kind of fun, innovative flavors that inspired them to do what they do.
“My background is more fine dining, but I don’t think people should have to pay $30–$40 a plate for food that’s thoughtfully sourced and seasonally prepared and stuff like that,” says Nate Weir, director of culinary operations at Modern Market, a 17-unit, Denver-based Fast Casual 2.0 (and home of the flank steak with au jus). “That’s what I love about Modern Market; it’s a chance to introduce that ideal of food to a broader spectrum of people.”
With a world of flavors at their fingertips and a restaurant model accessible to nearly all consumers, chefs in the fast-casual category have an opportunity to change the way people dine out forever. To do so, however, they need to nail the five key ingredients to a successful fast-casual menu.
1st Ingredient: Flavor
It used to be that limited-service restaurants were mostly a destination for convenience and value, not flavor innovation and culinary adventure. The fancier the food, the more out of place it was in a counter-service format. Today, however, consumer demand for high-quality foods—combined with their increasingly busy lifestyles—gives chefs’ the opportunity to play around with flavors in fast casual in ways the industry has never before seen.
Just look at Modern Market, which, after becoming a hit with the Denver business lunch crowd, has opened locations throughout Colorado and Texas, with plans to open soon in Arizona and Maryland. The concept features menu items like the Red Chicken Melt sandwich with spicy chipotle pepita chicken salad, aged white Cheddar, tomato, and mixed greens on ciabatta; a prosciutto pizza with arugula, pears, Gorgonzola, and a three-cheese blend on whole-grain dough; and a Sesame Tofu plate with seasoned organic tofu and a lemon maple vinaigrette.
“I feel like the sky is the limit in what I’m capable of doing,” Weir says. “But at the same time, if my mission is to start to change the way people eat and to introduce people to new things, I think you have to walk that fine line; you can’t just go too over the top with it. The bottom line is, my goal is to have people come back.”
He says he accomplishes this by limiting himself to one unfamiliar flavor or ingredient per dish, and by pairing that with other flavors that are more approachable to customers. Take, for example, last summer’s seasonal menu items that included the green escarole: the Steakhouse salad with escarole, Angus steak, pickled red onion, Gorgonzola, walnuts, cucumbers, roasted tomatoes, and a buttermilk horseradish dressing, and the sausage pizza with braised escarole, herb sausage, creamy roasted garlic crème fraîche, goat cheese, and chili flakes. He says the bitterness of the escarole might’ve been too outside the box for customers, but the other ingredients gave them permission to give the dish a shot.
For Weir, the research and development process typically begins by surveying what ingredients he has available to him, similar to what a fine-dining chef might do with a nightly special. He says he takes a “broad shotgun approach” to developing new items, initially conceiving several dishes by balancing available ingredients and popular trends with more approachable flavors. Then he whittles down his list to a handful of dishes that make it on Modern Market’s seasonal menu.
Tae Dickey follows a similar R&D process. Dickey is the chef and owner at the new San Diego–based Fast Casual 2.0 concept Biga, which offers, among other things, wood-fired pizzas, sandwiches, and bruschettas (and which is home to the milk-braised pork previously mentioned). He gets many ingredients locally and when developing new menu items, finds inspiration in the “fresh and vibrant” ingredients available to him.
As an example, Dickey points to a carrot dish he did at Biga that leveraged locally sourced heirloom carrots. He says he wood-fired the carrots, made a pesto out of the carrot tops, and finished the plate with carrot micro greens, making for a dish with a “multitude of carrot flavor: one charred, one slightly different and acidic from the carrot top, and then this sweet little carrot micro.”
“It’s about taking my base flavor and then seeing how I can accentuate it,” Dickey says. “And I think that’s in line with any other chef. You either use a contrasting or complementing flavor, or you use a base flavor, and then you build on it.”
The push toward more flavor innovation isn’t limited to upstart fast casuals and Fast Casual 2.0 concepts. Even larger fast-casual chains are feeling the pressure to constantly innovate with the flavors on their menu.
At the 200-plus-unit, Boston-based Au Bon Pain, for example, seasonal menus allow the company to rotate in a variety of new items with outside-the-box flavor profiles. Katherine See, Au Bon Pain’s executive chef, says customers still desire familiar flavors, but appreciate at least one unfamiliar flavor or ingredient in each dish. She says the brand’s seasonal menu items—which in the winter included a Thai Peanut Chicken Salad, a Superfood Blueberry Chia Hot Cereal, and an authentic French pastry called a Kouign-Amann—allow it to toy around with new ideas.
“That’s where I think our guests like to see where you can push the boundaries a little more, with your LTO and event items,” she says. “They don’t want menu fatigue either; our average guest eats at Au Bon Pain three to four times a week. We’re very conscious of giving some innovation.”
2nd Ingredient: Trends
Perhaps no industry is quite as trend-dependent as foodservice. While core menu items generally remain static across the industry—for example, sandwiches, salads, and pizza—the constant threat from competitors forces chefs and operators to keep ahead of the curve in giving customers popular flavors.
And in the fast-casual industry in particular, restaurants have the ability to pull from a wider variety of trends than most—which makes the chef’s job all the more important.
“It used to be an easier process. You could look at the trickle down from fine dining, and you could watch it on a timeline almost,” See says. “Now we have a lot more input. I look at fine dining. We also look at fast casuals and [quick serves]. I also spend a good chunk of time looking at retail outlets like grocery stores.”
That timeline See speaks of is real—just ask Mike Kostyo, publications manager for Datassential. The market research firm breaks down the movement of food trends into four phases: inception, in which the trend takes root in fine dining and upscale independent restaurants; adoption, in which it becomes more widely known to consumers and trickles down to casual and fast-casual restaurants; proliferation, when the trend reaches a wide audience and starts to trickle down to quick serves; and ubiquity, at which point the trend is everywhere. For context, trends in the inception phase today include panzanella and insects as an ingredient; adoption trends include piri piri and cold-brew coffee; proliferation trends feature foods like carnitas and Greek yogurt; and recent ubiquity additions include avocados and watermelon.
Kostyo says it used to take about 12 years for a trend to trickle down from inception to ubiquity. These days, though, it’s about half that time, and the fast-casual boom might be partly to thank.
“Fast casual has been one of the key movers across the industry. … They are more trendy, they are moving faster, they are putting things on the menu that consumers may not be familiar with,” Kostyo says. “In a lot of cases, [quick serves] play in burgers, pizza, things like that where consumers are really comfortable, whereas a lot of the fast casuals are very comfortable doing a whole new cuisine, whether it’s Southeast Asian or döner kebabs or whatever it may be.”
He adds that trends can be a double-edged sword for chefs entering the fast-casual space. For those eager to jump into the industry, popular trends and novelty items might seem the best way to go, but not all trends have the longevity necessary to making a concept successful.