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.
Andrew Gruel, cofounder and chef of California-based seafood fast casual Slapfish, says most chefs want to reject trends because they want to be seen as leaders rather than followers. But he says he disagrees with that approach.
“I think trends come about because there’s a confluence of demand in the industry, and you’re silly not to jump on those things, because if that’s what people want, that’s what people are going to pay for, and if you’re a smart business person, you’re going to follow through,” Gruel says. “But the idea is to take a trend as a suggestion and then try to add on top of that trend. Create a trend within a trend. That’s what we do. We definitely jump on what’s hot and then try to take it in our own direction.”
Kostyo says he expects vegetables to be one of the main trend drivers in the fast-casual industry in the coming years.
“For a long time it was bacon and proteins, and now it’s all local vegetables and protein bowls, where the protein may be a root vegetable and then tofu or something like that,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot of what we call those ‘new-healthy’ flavors moving really quickly, and then almost anything ethnic.”
3rd Ingredient: Sourcing
Sourcing practices have come into focus throughout the restaurant industry in the last decade as consumers become more educated about food and interested in the story of where certain foods come from. And as fast-casual chefs strive to create innovative, high-quality dishes, sourcing is as paramount as flavor profile.
But the challenges of sourcing in a high-volume environment like a multiunit fast-casual chain mean the romanticized notion of a farm-to-table operation isn’t always possible.
Modern Market’s Weir says his company goes out of its way to source the best quality possible, but is limited in how much of that is local because its largest base of restaurants is in Colorado. Instead, the company might source the best option from its broadline distributor or, if there’s a better product they want to use that’s not available, Weir and his team might work with that vendor to create a relationship with the broadliner. He says they did this with their lettuce provider, Scarborough Farms in California, as well as with other smaller companies, like a local sausage maker in Denver.
“It takes extra time to do it that way, but on the other hand, it’s a way for us to mitigate our liability because of the food-safety standards that people have to adhere to now in order to get stocked at these broadliners,” he says. “It makes sure everything is in place, versus that farmer pulling up out back with the pickup truck full of whatever. It’s a great story and fun picture to think about, but when you’re talking about 12–15 restaurants, it’s not realistic that that’s the way it happens.”
Local sourcing is especially tough for concepts as they expand across the country. At Au Bon Pain, See says, the company is limited to sourcing certain produce locally through its broadliner. But that doesn’t mean the rest of her sourcing decisions are a breeze; See says she meets with her sourcing team weekly to go over supply chain issues and ingredient availability, making menu decisions based on things like rainy seasons.
See adds that by having lots of new products in Au Bon Pain’s pipeline, she lowers the risk that sourcing snafus will disrupt the roll-out process. “We do our product development plan a year in advance, but I never get too attached to an item until I get within a couple months of the event, because that’s the reality of being a national chain: You have to understand the sourcing aspects of it,” she says.
Of course, local sourcing is still a highly valuable practice in the fast-casual category, and many operators are working to scale their farm-to-table practices as they grow.
Take, for example, the Napa, California–based Heritage Eats, a Fast Casual 2.0 serving global-inspired dishes like the Chicken Tikka Masala Wrap mentioned at the beginning of this story. Located in the heart of the nation’s most fertile agricultural state, Heritage Eats has “a cornucopia of fresh ingredients” to choose from, says cofounder and executive chef Jason Kupper. He and cofounder Ben Koenig plan to scale its local-sourcing practices as the concept opens new locations.
“The farmers are pretty tapped into the restaurant scene, and it’s not their first rodeo. They have a good rapport when talking with chefs, and they’re not gun shy about it,” Kupper says. “It’s scalable in the sense that, even if we moved up to Portland, Oregon, for example, it would be the same approach. It would be seeking out the same kind of connections and getting out there and shaking hands. That’s how we did it: We went out there and physically shook hands with farmers.”
4th Ingredient: Seasonality
Because Modern Market’s first handful of locations were located in the same state, Colorado customers got to know its seasonal changes pretty well. While there are several permanent dishes available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, there is also a range of seasonal menu items that join the fray three or four times a year.
That wasn’t as understood when the company initially opened in Texas, however. And Weir says the chain’s fall seasonal pizza—a Bacon Corn pie with bacon bits, crème fraîche, roasted corn, and fresh basil—was such a hit in Dallas that when the pizza came off the menu in the winter, the company got several complaints from guests who’d become attached to it.
“That was a great item, but we believe in eating seasonally and cooking seasonally, and we would rather not do an asparagus pizza in the fall or a corn pizza in the winter,” he says, adding that Texas customers in time came to understand—and even embrace—Modern Market’s seasonality.
Seasonal menus offer a range of benefits. For starters, they force operators to maintain high sourcing standards by bringing in only ingredients that are in season. In addition, seasonality lets chefs play around with new flavors and develop a stable of options that could go on the permanent menu if something else is under-performing. Seasonal menus also help lower the risk of truly outside-the-box items, Weir says, giving the restaurant an easy out if customers don’t respond positively to a certain dish.
“If I have an item … that just doesn’t sell well or the complexity turns out to be too much, well, it’s no problem; in three months it’s out, and we’ll tough it out through then, maybe make some tweaks,” he says. “But we have a set date we know we can point to when we don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
At Heritage Eats, the core of the menu—seven chef-created “Good Calls,” along with customizable bowls and salads—remains the same year-round. But Kupper and his team develop weekend specials while also changing their vegetables with the season. He says that when the restaurant opened in May 2015, its vegetable offering included grilled zucchini, yellow squash, and green and red bell peppers with a lemon herb dressing. When those vegetables were out of season, he shifted to a roasted cauliflower dish, and when cauliflower’s season was up, he changed to roasted butternut squash and acorn squash with toasted pepitas, dried cranberries, fresh herbs, and garlic.
“It’s not an easy task at all. It requires a little bit of extra work on my end to be in touch with the purveyors daily,” Kupper says. “There’s no such thing as a day off. I’m getting phone calls and staying in touch with everyone every day of the week.”
5th Ingredient: Training
For the most part, chefs aren’t getting into fast casual simply to open one-off concepts; they’re getting into fast casual because of the potential to scale a concept into a regional or national player. And doing this requires systems that can ensure consistency in the execution—often from employees who might never have worked in a kitchen before.
“You have to think about getting it executed across a multiunit platform,” Slapfish’s Gruel says of new menu items in pipeline. “That is actually what drives the bus: what’s scalable and easy to replicate across a multiunit platform.”
This need for consistency makes the fast-casual chef’s job critically important not just from an R&D perspective, but from a training perspective, as well. Gruel says that when he develops new dishes, he has to consider his labor and how many variables go into the dish; the more variables, he says, the more opportunity there is for something to go wrong.
Weir—the only full-time culinary employee at Modern Market—says one of his biggest challenges in moving to fast casual from fine dining was figuring out how to be an educator and understanding certain things he took for granted. “If I tell somebody to pour the oil slowly into the blender when they’re trying to make a vinaigrette, they have no idea what I’m talking about,” he says. “It’s not just something they learned at culinary school. So I actually have to take the time to educate and explain some of the fundamental reasons behind this, to get my staff to be able to do it.”
Kupper takes his fine dining influence to another level in the Heritage Eats kitchen. The kitchen staff makes food to order and has been trained specifically to monitor rotation of product to keep it as fresh as possible. In addition, employees are taught to taste food before it leaves the kitchen to ensure quality.
“We’re not going to have to hire a three-star Michelin chef at each location,” he says. “It’s going to be more of a kitchen manager role where we have our training program that we’ve established, and each location that we open, they’ll have to go through the same rigorous training that we did here at the original location.”