Delivering on the company's promise — "fine. food. fast." — is a tall order and one that Gideon says depends on strategic menu engineering. The f2O menu is extensive, encompassing freshly prepared appetizers, salads, soups, entrees, paninis and desserts. The chain serves wine and craft beers, and newer units also include a full bar. This optional feature is one that franchisees can choose to add to the new prototype, which will debut in a pair of units later this year, according to Blain. The design of the full bar module will help take the concept more aggressively into the dinner daypart.
Staff freshly prepare all menu items and fire-grill all proteins to order at a display cooking station positioned directly behind the cash registers.
"Everything's visible to the guests and contributes to the experience," Panos says. "You see the beautiful flames and the open kitchen with chefs working. As you order your food, your salmon or filet or chicken is immediately placed onto the grill, cooked fresh to order and either pressed into a panini or plated as an entrée or salad component. In most fast-casual operations, proteins either come in precooked from a commissary to be reheated on-site or are cooked in batches in off-peak periods. The fact that we grill to order and are able to get you served within 10 minutes is a big differentiator."
Gideon adds, "What's different about f2O from most fast-casual restaurants is that our food is adult-driven and chef-inspired. We have everything from filet to crispy calamari to fresh-roasted pork loin. We have nine signature salads as well as seasonal salads. And because nothing is premade, our dishes can be deconstructed and customized to meet guests' specific requests and dietary preferences. Flexibility is a huge part of the concept. We've created what we think are the best possible combinations of flavors and ingredients, but you're free to mix and match dressings, proteins, etc., to suit your tastes."
Best-selling items include a panini sandwich with bourbon-marinated salmon, avocado, lettuce, tarragon aioli and a corn and cilantro relish. "That sandwich just kills it," Gideon says. "It has been our best seller in every store since day one." The top entrée choice is the marinated f2O Fire-Grilled Chicken, which is served with wheat berry rice and a balsamic cabernet reduction.
One key to making such a diverse and upscale menu work at the speed and price point that f2O offers is creative cross-utilization of proteins. Each of the three main menu categories — salads, entrees and sandwiches — uses almost all of the proteins. Presentation also plays a key role in delivering on the "fine" promise. Many items are presented on 17-inch-long plates that were custom designed for f2O. "The plates are especially important for our salads, which we believe we do better than anyone, in part because of how we present them," Panos says.
Not only do the plates look distinctive and more upscale than what most fast-casual operations might use, Panos says they also serve an important role in elevating the quality of f2O's salads. "At most places, you see guests picking around in their salad bowl, trying to get the perfect amount of dressing, toppings and greens in each bite. Or they finish the toppings and the dressing on top first and are left with a bottom layer of plain greens. We pre-toss our salad greens so that every bite has the right amount of dressing. We plate them on the long plate end-to-end and layer the toppings and selected protein end-to-end on top of the greens. It ensures that all those perfect bites are already built in for you; you don't have to hunt and peck for the goodies or wind up with just greens at the bottom of a bowl."
An additional key to making the concept work is smart purchasing and establishing win-win relationships with distributors, as well as with manufacturers and farmers. For a small, emerging chain, getting the best deals can be tough. Gideon says, "It takes sharing your vision and your plans. It takes nurturing partners and getting their buy-in. We've been able to do that."
Like the menu, the atmosphere at f2O strategically sets the restaurant chain apart from most in the fast-casual segment. The existing prototype features interiors that Panos describes as contemporary but warm. "It's a level above fast casual," he says. "You get literally $2 to $3 more in perceived value because of the environment. It's more reminiscent of a nice casual-dining restaurant."