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    Fast Casual’s World of Flavor

  • Chefs explain the five ingredients necessary to serving top-shelf food in a fast-casual environment.

    Modern Market
    Modern Market’s Homestyle Plate with flank steak and a house-made au jus.

    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.”