Greg Powers

In addition to upscale full-service restaurants like Kapnos Kouzina, which Chef Mike Isabella opened in March, he also operates concepts that include both fast-casual and full-service models and that present a range of opportunities for cross-utilizati

Food on Fast Forward

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From fine dining to casual counters, the hallmarks of hospitality have become flexibility, efficiency, and freshness.

By Connie Gentry May 2016

The future of restaurants is coming fast: Chef-driven fast casuals seem to offer the best of all culinary worlds for value-motivated, time-starved consumers as well as the best growth vehicle for profit-hungry restaurant operators. Increasingly, celebrated chefs and acclaimed restaurateurs have embraced the counter motif and are serving the same high-quality, inventive cuisine traditionally presented on white tablecloths, but now in a casual, made-to-order setting.

In Washington, D.C., there’s the veggie-centric, tongue-in-cheek Beefsteak fast casual from Chef José Andrés, and the highly anticipated fast casual Made Nice is slated to open by summer in New York City, compliments of Eleven Madison Park’s Chef Daniel Humm and Will Guidara. Chef Ray Garcia is mixing it up in L.A. with his contemporary take on Mexican at B.S. Taqueria, where fast-casual lunch service flips to full service for dinner.

Even chefs who are building storied careers from the world’s finest kitchens acknowledge the potential of fast-casual concepts and the allure of hybrid models that combine elements of fast casual and fine dining. As Chef Mathew Peters, who sharpened his cooking expertise at The French Laundry before rising to the position of executive sous chef at Per Se, notes, “Every chef loves to go out and indulge in something that is simple and casual. It’s the soul of what we love to do—as much as we want to do fine-dining food that is great and creative—there’s a part of [a chef] that still wants to just do something that is simple.”

Now he’s back in Napa, working in the prestigious R&D kitchen alongside The French Laundry in preparation to lead Team USA in the 2017 Bocuse d’Or competition. Talking with FSR, Chef Peters also points to pragmatic reasons that chefs are favoring simple venues: “Talented chefs are finding opportunities to make a lot of money in fast casual,” he says, noting that rising food costs make it increasingly difficult to run a successful fine-dining restaurant, and a “diminished talent pool” makes it difficult to find cooks and chefs to staff kitchens. On a brighter note, he adds, “American diners love those kinds of dining experiences, where it’s very affordable but they have very good food, and I think we’ll see a lot of chefs moving in that direction.”

Paving the way to this multi-faceted, mixed-use future of foodservice is Chef Mike Isabella: His Washington, D.C.–based restaurant group includes 11 locations, including Kapnos Kouzina, an upscale-casual Greek concept that opened in March in Bethesda, Maryland, and his first restaurant in that state. A second Kapnos Kouzina is slated to open this summer in Fairfax, Virginia, and the group’s next new concept is in the works for 2017. The group also has restaurants in two airports and in Nationals Park, D.C.’s baseball stadium. While the G Sandwich Shop in the ballpark is fast casual, most of Isabella’s concepts are either purely full service or a hybrid model that combines elements of both fast and full service.

G by Mike Isabella is a full-service restaurant at night and a Fast-casual sandwich shop at lunch.

One concept in particular, G by Mike Isabella, is the quintessential example of a perfectly executed hybrid model, with a fast-casual sandwich shop by day and a full-service Italian restaurant by night. As Chef Isabella notes, the operation is even more multi-functional than that: “G is also attached to Kapnos, which is our Greek restaurant, so it’s really like three concepts in two [adjoining] spaces,” he says. “ I had this one 7,000-square-foot space and I designed two concepts so I could do cross-utilization on products from the Greek place to the sandwich shop; we share a dishwasher, share an office, share bathrooms, share a bar, and one manager oversees both projects.”

Suckling Pig Sandwich

Cross-Utilization Creates Efficiencies

In part, Chef Isabella’s interest in opening fast-casual operations was influenced by consumer demand for chef-driven fast casuals that serve better products. However, the decision to develop three synergistic concepts in one space was driven by the advantages afforded by cross-utilization throughout the restaurant operations. From the beginning, that’s how he envisioned this project. “I designed it that way because I knew the first restaurant was going to be Kapnos and I needed an outlet for the [unused] meats—that’s why we decided to do the sandwich shop.”

Kapnos features two wood-fire grills that yield plentiful carvings of whole spit-roasted lamb, goat, pig, and chicken—enough to satisfy the needs of dinner service seven days a week, brunch on the weekends, and still have leftovers to supply the fast-casual sandwich shop at G with incredibly high-end product for lamb gyros, chicken salad, and “pork panino” sandwiches.

“There is a lot of cross-utilization, from food to space to management, that makes it a much more efficient restaurant—plus we are hitting multiple types of clientele because if [diners] don’t like Greek, there’s the sandwich shop by day and Italian restaurant at night,” Isabella says. “It’s been a huge success, having the concepts combined, and it was also cheaper to do the build-out—paying an architect to do one design, paying for one set of permits, paying for one liquor license—so across the board, it’s a really cool project to have.”

That cross-utilization creates efficiencies throughout the operations, from staffing to inventory. George Pagonis, executive chef and partner in the Isabella group, oversees all of the projects, although there are sous chefs designated to each individual concept. Two cashiers staff the quick-service counter at lunch, but at night the restaurant transitions to the traditional full-service model with hosts and servers, who are trained to work at both concepts and move between Kapnos and G depending on which is busier.

As for inventory management, Chef Isabella explains, “When we put orders in [there are] Greek products and Italian products, but we’ll use the same olive oil and have one inventory at the end of the month so it’s easier and a lot more cost-effective.” Food costs as a percentage of operation typically run in the mid-20s. Check averages range from $17 at the sandwich shop to $50 at G’s dinner service, and $65 to $70 at Kapnos. On the beverage side, the main bar is in Kapnos, but a service window enables drinks to easily be passed into G. The wine lists are similar between the two concepts, with some cross-utilization of Greek and Italian wines.

Chef Isabella opened a similar model last year with the introduction of Kapnos Taverna in January 2015, followed by a Mexican cantina, Pepita, in July, and Yona, a ramen noodle shop, in December—all in the same building in Arlington, Virginia. The kitchens are separate in these operations so cross-utilization is not as comprehensive as it is at G and Kapnos, but management and chefs are shared. “The reason I did this is because the Greek place is a full-service restaurant, the Mexican cantina is more of a bar with tacos, and the noodle bar is a full-service restaurant, but it doesn’t have a sit-down bar,” Isabella says. “ When people are waiting to come into the noodle restaurant, they go hang out at Pepita until their table is ready—so we are cross-utilizing by the design and because the concepts are similar.”

Isabella’s inspiration for creating multi-use hybrid concepts originated from the business philosophy of hotels and casinos, where he says the intention is to create an environment that is designed to give guests all of the dining options they might need. “When we do these hybrids, we want to have everything for the guest that they could possibly want so they don’t want to leave, and they always want to come back because they can get something different.”

And he enjoys doing the hybrid operations; although he admits, “It is sometimes a little harder to run a hybrid business in the beginning, but once you get it going, it can be much more profitable to have the cross-utilized concepts.”

Looking ahead, Chef Isabella expects to “do a little of both,” opening full-service as well as fast-casual restaurants. Already on the drawing board is an ambitious plan to open a 42,000-square-foot, 10-concept development in 2017 that will include both service models. Isabella Eatery will be located in Tyson’s Corner Gallery Place, and he speculates it will likely include “a coffee shop, an ice cream parlor, our fast-casual Greek line, a Spanish tapas place, a cantina, a Mediterranean raw bar, and our full-service Graffiato concept.”

And yes, there will be extensive cross-utilization among the concepts. “We’ll have one ordering unit, one purchaser/receiving [system], and one chef overseeing all of it, with multiple sous chefs in the different developments,” he says.

The Taco Plate at La Sandia is part of Richard Sandoval’s Fast and casual lunch service.

Focus on Lunch: Fast and Casual

The inspiration and the key ingredient for success at Chef Isabella’s fast-casual sandwich shop is the use of high-end proteins, carved fresh at sister restaurant Kapnos. That commitment to serving high-quality, made-to-order product is what differentiates a chef-driven fast casual from the competition.

For many operators, the strategy is not about creating a fast-casual counter service—instead, it’s all about providing the same quality of food that is offered in an upscale full-service setting but in a dining experience, most often focused on the lunch daypart, that is both fast and casual.

Graham Bartlett, regional executive chef of Richard Sandoval Restaurants, oversees the menus at the group’s D.C. concepts and says, “In America, we’ve seen a changing demographic in the way people want to eat, especially with upscale-casual business. People want something between fast food and fine dining, with healthy, fast options that are easy to understand and that can be produced quickly.”

Responding to that demand, the company’s La Sandia concept introduced its Vamonos Express Lunch Menu, which Chef Bartlett describes as being approachable, very fast, and easy—adding that Mexican cuisine is particularly adaptable to fast and casual service. “Later this summer we will open one of our El Centro brands in the Reagan airport, and it will be fast casual, because there’s a demand for that,” he says. “There’s still some demand for quick service, but in the terminal where we are opening it’s all locally driven concepts from well-known chefs and restaurateurs. Another example [of fast and casual] is what Zengo, our Latin/Asian restaurant in downtown D.C., is doing with bento boxes. We’ve made an adult’s lunchbox to have in-house or to-go. The idea is to do something affordable, casual, and—more often than not—it’s pretty healthy.”

Regardless of speed to service, the integrity of the food is priority one. The menu selection is more limited, but the quality is not compromised in the least. “We aren’t cutting corners in any way because it’s still Chef Sandoval’s reputation, and everything is from-scratch cooking, made-to-order, and all of our sauces are made in-house,” Chef Bartlett says. “In Mexico, a lot of the street food is very casual and put together à la minute, so what’s to say we can’t replicate that in our own kitchens?”

That same philosophy can be translated to all types of cuisine so that service can become fast and casual without impacting the quality of dishes served. Certainly that has been the result at the fashionable Burke in a Box cafe inside Bloomingdale’s flagship Manhattan store. The dual-concept restaurant offers a full-service Burke Bar Cafe on one side and a convenient Burke in the Box eat-in/take-out concept on the other.

“What we’ve noticed is the need to be flexible to what consumers want,” says John Murray, COO of David Burke Group. “And what we’re seeing, especially during lunch, is the desire for a high-quality presentation of food with locally sourced ingredients that are also of the highest quality and served in an ideal setting. Consumers are willing to trade some of the pomp and circumstance typically associated with a full-service experience for an efficient and friendly hospitable experience that provides less impact on the checkbook, but doesn’t sacrifice on the quality of the experience.”

That’s precisely what guests experience at the full-service Burke concept in Bloomingdale’s, where lunch entails a two-course meal, appetizer and entrée, but the crisp, efficient service enables a table turn time that averages 40 to 45 minutes for the typical party of two. To accomplish this feat, Murray explains how the restaurant has realigned its service from the traditional model where there are busers, runners, and servers. “We’ve trained all of our staff in this restaurant to be multi-functional: Everyone knows how to run a table; everyone is responsible for busing; and we’re highly attuned to greeting tables right away when they sit down so we immediately start that service experience.” The average per-person check at lunch is in the high $20s to low $30s, and lunch accounts for roughly 65 percent of the revenue, he explains. Dinner resumes a more traditional full-service model, with the unit volume of alcohol served about double that of lunch, average checks in the range of high $40s to low $50s, and table turn times at about 75 minutes.

The lobster wedge is one example of the upscale quality of food and presentation served to guests who are looking for a fast lunch at the dual-concept Burke Box Cafe and Burke in the Box.

Fail Fast to be Fail-Safe

While the caliber of food and service is expected to remain the same in hybrid operations that offer fast and casual lunches alongside upscale full-service dinner and brunch, a number of changes must occur in both the front of house and the kitchen for restaurants to be able to execute high quality in a faster mode. Murray acknowledges that it was difficult to transition servers into multi-functional roles during the lunch service. “It’s natural human instinct to push back when you are asked to step out of your comfort zone, and that’s what we’re asking when we pivot the service model so that everyone is empowered to do every role,” he says. “When you are trying something new, you are going to have some failures, and we try to fail as fast as possible so we can learn and make the next improvement.”

The onus is on operators, Murray says, to create processes and modifications that enable the faster service. For instance, expectations that servers will perform high-end crumbing during an expedited lunch service are simply not realistic. Adjustments are required in the kitchen as well. Perhaps there are fewer pick-ups required for each dish, fewer pans involved, sauces or dressings that are less elaborate, or less intricacy in the plating.

“Form has to follow function to a certain degree, so in thinking about the savory dishes with fresh ingredients that we [offer], we have to be very efficient,” he says. “Everything is made-to-order, but everything on the menu must be a little more straightforward in its presentation. That’s another departure from a full-service mindset. Our goal is to streamline the preparation process as much as possible without sacrificing overall quality—and it’s a dance. You have to play around a bit, but we’re finding our guests respond very positively to simple ingredients that are made very well and in a way that really allows the dish to shine.”

In addition to the Bloomingdale’s location, the group has another Burke in the Box in the Las Vegas airport, and it has opened two purely fast-casual concepts in the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. At Angry Taco and The Handwich Shop (which is a sandwich shop with sandwiches about the size of a hand and that can be eaten in two bites) the focus is on high-quality ingredients and simple preparation. “We want guests to feel like they are having what is essentially a full-service, full-kitchen-prepared sandwich in a way that is made-to-order,” Murray says.

Table 301 launched the Papi’s Tacos fast-casual concept because there was a need for high-end Mexican street food in the Greenville market.

Fast Track to Growth

Increasingly, entrepreneurial chefs and restaurant groups are realizing that fast-casual concepts present accessible vehicles for growth with earnings potential that will attract investment. For instance, the David Burke Group is also in the process of creating a new project along the same lines of the Isabella Eatery. “We are re-concepting the idea of the traditional food court into an upscale food market that will bring high-end hospitality to consumers who are going to the [upscale] malls and lifestyle centers,” Murray says. “Our Craveable Market will present a lot of these hybrid concepts under one roof, so we’re bringing this notion of higher-end service, higher-quality food under one [management] umbrella.”

And in Greenville, South Carolina, the Table 301 restaurant group has augmented its portfolio of upscale-polished restaurants with two recently launched fast casuals. However, even before launching the new brands—Papi’s Tacos and Southern Pressed Juicery—Table 301 opened a bakery and café adjacent to Soby’s, the group’s first concept that has become a landmark restaurant for the burgeoning foodie city.

“We opened Soby’s on the Side because a lot of people wanted us to be open for lunch,” explains Carl Sobocinski, founder and owner of Table 301. “We didn’t want to open Soby’s for lunch because we were already spending a lot of time in there during the morning to get ready for dinner. Instead, when that adjacent real estate came open, we decided to take the opportunity to do a breakfast and lunch café.”

Opened 15 years ago in the summer of 2001, Soby’s on the Side foreshadowed the future of fast and casual service with a tagline that proclaimed: “The quality you’ve come to expect at Soby’s with the speed and convenience you need during the daytime.”

Last year, the group accelerated its commitment to expand in the fast-casual segment: The first Papi’s Tacos location opened in 2013 in Greenville, and two units opened last year in nearby Spartanburg. Southern Pressed Juicery opened its Greenville location in May 2015, followed by a smaller outpost later in the year at Furman University.

“Papi’s Tacos and Southern Pressed Juicery definitely fit into our thought process for diversifying our portfolio and for bringing different options to the city,” Sobocinski explains. “Papi’s Tacos came to be because we had great real estate, felt the need for a Mexican venue in our community, and an employee who had been with us since day one of Soby’s makes wonderful Mexican street food.”

That was the impetus for creating the Papi’s Tacos concept—but the reason for launching a fast-casual brand that could scale to multiple locations was more strategic. “As I looked at my business over its first 15 years, I realized that an exit strategy in our [industry] has a much higher success rate and a greater chance [of the business being acquired] when there is one product or brand that you’ve scaled—because an investment firm or an equity firm is going to come in and be interested in acquiring that,” Sobocinski explains. “Investment firms are more interested in something that is easier to run. Seven unique brands and individual concepts are much more difficult to manage than seven units of the same brand.”

From the beginning, Papi’s Tacos was envisioned as something that could scale bigger than one or two units. If it worked in Greenville, the expectation at Table 301 was that the fast-casual brand would expand into other markets—possibly taking it to 10 or 12 units—before presenting it as an investment opportunity to an equity firm. “I was looking for a potential exit strategy and wanting to see if we could come up with a buyer after three to five years,” Sobocinski says.

That was also the motivation in starting Southern Pressed Juicery, which filled another void in the market by providing 100 percent organic products that speak to consumer demand for healthier choices. When approached about the concept, Sobocinski’s response was decisive: “I said, ‘Look, I’m not interested in doing just one, I want someone who wants to try to make this concept scalable.’ I want to get this to six to 10 units and then see if we can find [an investor] interested in helping us take this to 50 or 100 units.”

Fast-casual and quick-service brands are more scalable because the operations are more simplistic, as Sobocinski notes, it’s just easier when all of the ingredients are the same, the menus are the same, and the company is sourcing from the same suppliers for all of its units. Contrast that with the polished-casual brands in the Table 301 portfolio—where every chef is creating new menu items and sourcing from his preferred local farms—and it’s abundantly clear that the level of operational complexity is vastly different.

“I’m not that different from any operator who is looking at getting into a smaller, faster, quick-service [model] as part of an exit strategy,” Sobocinski concludes. “There’s a higher likelihood of being able to sell that brand, as opposed to selling a fine-dining restaurant that takes 50 to 70 employees to run.”

PACKED opened in February in Chicago.

PACKED with Flavor and Innovation

A fine-dining chef makes fast food more exciting and unique, but fast casual makes fine food approachable and accessible. That was one reason Chef Mike Sheerin partnered with Aaron DiMaria to open PACKED in February. Sheerin, who is also the executive chef of Chicago’s Embeya restaurant, thought it would be fun to do a fast casual, especially one that focuses on fresh, innovative, and simple dishes and that gives locavores an affordable, sustainable dining option.

“The concept is that everything is packed inside the dumpling,” says Chef Sheerin. “I have a mindset for making things delicious, but sometimes it seems like they aren’t as approachable as they could be. I work hard to make dumplings that are really approachable, but are also a new version of something out there.” And he works to overcome the automatic assumption that dumplings mean exclusively Asian. “What’s inside the dumplings are things you’ll never find anywhere, from short ribs and brown rice to king crab. We put a hamburger dumpling on the menu, with really great ground beef, onions, and Swiss cheese in it.”

Part of being approachable is being affordable—hence the Six Pack special with four dumplings, a side and a drink for $13—but another aspect is creating food that people want to eat, “something that is not too esoteric or ethereal,” Chef Sheerin says. “We want people to be like, ‘Wow, that’s actually inside of a dumpling? I want to try that.’ And I want the food to be craveable—a hamburger dumpling is approachable and it is also craveable.”

Sheerin has quite the résumé for achieving this, having worked in the New York City kitchens of Lutèce, Atlas, Jean-Georges, and WD-50, then as chef de cuisine at Chicago’s Blackbird and later as executive chef at Cicchetti.