By Tom Smith
It used to be that if a chef wanted to open a great restaurant, the name had to start with La or Le. Not today. The restaurant landscape is changing. Is it the economy? Are chefs bored with stuffy white tablecloths? Or is it truly the next evolution of the American restaurant scene? No matter which school of thought you subscribe to, you can’t deny that chef-inspired upscale is going fast-casual. Or is it the other way around?
Chefs are some of the most progressive, creative star-worthy entrepreneurs our country has to offer. Many of them have begun to realize that they can just as easily express their passion and creativity through fast-casual concepts without compromising the extremely high standards that have made them successful. Top-notch chefs are now constructing new concepts with smaller footprints and less overhead, allowing them to develop new menus and dishes at smaller price points.
Naturally, the majority of these new fast casual restaurants are popping up in large restaurant-savvy metropolises like New York, Chicago and L.A. Tom Colicchio’s ’Wichcraft, now up to 14 units in Manhattan, is elevating sandwiches. Mario Batali’s Mozza2Go in L.A. offers artisan pizzas and antipasti to go!
As with any new business venture there are some risks, but the biggest might be the chef’s use of his or her own name. Well-known chefs essentially build themselves into brands, and as with all brands, certain standards are expected. So the carnitas served at Rick Bayless’s fast casual restaurant, Xoco, must be meticulously prepared with the same care and quality as it is as Frontera Grill.
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Chefs like Rick Bayless, Tom Colicchio and Mario Batali are broadening their audiences with new less-exclusive concepts. The benefits are great for the chefs as well as the dining public. Alcohol can still be served, kids are welcome, and labor and food costs can be lower and even offset some expenses from their big brothers. Cross-utilizing products between restaurants is another way these chefs have approached menu development. Butchering, sauce-making and baking are a few examples of how these chefs can provide the high-end quality at the price point the dining public now demands.
The high price of opening fine dining restaurants is leading some chefs to begin without the white tablecloths at all. Two of the most popular contestants on Bravo channel’s Top Chef Series, have started their own fast casual concepts. Richard Blais and Spike Mendelsohn are a part of new breed of young American chefs that haven’t followed the traditional fine dining path to restaurant ownership, instead using the emerging chef-driven fast casual segment to carve their brands.
Both Blais and Mendelsohn are applying new ingredients and techniques to classic burgers and pizza to appeal to a younger demographic. Targeting these younger consumers may be key to the sustainability of the chef-driven fast casual concept. While this demographic tends to have less income, they will seek out the best food for the money they have and find it with concepts like Blais and Mendelsohn’s.
Another way chefs are breaking into the fast casual segment is by offering consulting services to established fast casual chain operators to help evolve their menus. Chefs like Nate Appleman, who has been working with fast casual trendsetter Chipotle, are bringing a fine-dining mentality to menu development. Just because you don’t have 20 prep cooks or rows upon rows of saucepans and emersion circulators, doesn’t mean that quality and technique has to suffer. Marinated sliced flank steak in place of prime ribeye offers the same satisfaction and gives the operator the cost flexibility to build around it.
The success of these chef inspired fast casual restaurant concepts is apparent not only in seeing their busy dining rooms, but also online. With social networking, blogs, and sites and apps like Yelp and Foodspotting, gone are the days of relying on your local newspaper’s restaurant critic for what’s new on the restaurant scene. When Rick Bayless’s acclaimed Xoco opened, reviews and images of his housemade hot chocolates and amazing tortas (and lines wrapped around the block), instantly hit the internet.
You still can’t get a table if you just walk into Tom Colicchio’s Craft at 7 p.m. on Friday night, but you can certainly get a slow-roasted Berkshire pork sandwich from ’Wichcraft — to-go if you want. Whether you want to say upscale is going fast casual or fast casual is going upscale, It just goes to show that when great minds think fast, we can all appreciate the reward.
Food IQ executive chef Tom Smith lives the philosophy of “Before it’s a great dish, it’s a great idea,” partnering and guiding his clients to strategic culinary concepts, executions and ideations.