Q&A: Susan Weaver, Chef/Partner, Community Canteen, Reston, Va., part of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chicago

For a restaurant that's a part of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, known for its higher-end, innovative restaurant concepts, Community Canteen is surprisingly sedate. In fact, the concept stems from simplicity. "Our goal is to offer fast-casual, simple and good food," says Susan Weaver, chef/partner.

Mon-Ami-omlete-barCustomized ingredients for items like salads and omelets are a key component of Community Canteen’s concept.The first location opened in Reston, Va., in September 2008, and a second location, also in Virginia, began operations last September. Despite a back-to-basics approach, the menu offers indulgent culinary selections that combine comfort food and nutritional ingredients. With an impressive coffee and tea program and burgeoning catering business, this sandwich shop-type concept has carved out a unique niche in a competitive segment.

FE&S: Describe the Community Canteen concept.

SW: Our concept is custom, which is evident from our aesthetics and logo. Our main goal is to cater to our guests and not be a cookie-cutter concept, which I think sets us apart. People can order an omelet with any ingredients, oatmeal the way they like it, sandwiches with any toppings or pick from a range of salad bar items. Although our restaurants are well established as destinations for breakfast and lunch, we also have a strong afternoon coffee/bakery business. We have a grab-and-go component as well.

FE&S: Community Canteen now has two sites. Are they identical?

SW: The square footage for Community Canteen in the Reston Town Center is 1,000 square feet, and our Sunset Hills Road location's square footage is exactly double this size. The layout of our new location is a little different from our flagship site, since the spaces are different. The second location is larger, with more seating. We feel it has addressed a learning curve as our operation has grown.

FE&S: How would you describe Community Canteen's decor?

SW: Our Reston Town Center location has about 30 seats and a patio. The Sunset Hills Road site has 44 seats and outdoor seating as well. I would describe the decor in the Reston Town Center restaurant as eclectic, campy and fun. It is a part of the French bistro, Mon Ami Gabi, which is located next door. We do all of our menus by hand on paper rolls, which are on the walls, so it's very offbeat. We also have a big chalkboard that we do fun things with. Food is prepared at a counter in front of customers.

FE&S: What are your signature menu items and best sellers?

SW: All of our menu items are made from scratch. Our biggest component in the morning is the fruit and yogurt bar, along with our omelet station. Our breakfast sandwiches are popular and include a breakfast panini with bacon, egg and cheese and a breakfast burrito. In terms of lunch, our hot sandwiches are more popular than our cold varieties. Big sellers include the turkey pastrami Reuben and spicy lamb on naan bread with goat cheese and cucumber yogurt sauce. We offer five hot sandwiches, in addition to a hot sandwich and hot entrée special, each day. We also have three soups daily, such as prime beef and black bean chili, roasted tomato, baked potato, chicken noodle, and quinoa and chicken. Hot entrées are comfort food with a healthy twist. These range from penne pasta with Bolognese sauce; goat cheese ravioli; corned beef and cabbage; turkey meatballs and spaghetti; turkey meatloaf; mac and cheese; and chicken pot pies. We like to keep that part of the menu evolving. Baking is done in-house, with top sellers including croissants, muffins, crumbles, pound cakes and pies.

FE&S: You have a strong catering program. How has it supplemented your business?

SW: The real growth of our business has been in catering. We're very flexible and will work with customers and guests. We can custom cater to any business or residence. We've worked events for as many as 4,000 people. Our catering menu includes hot and cold breakfast, a full range of bakery items, made-to-order omelets, soup, hot and cold sandwiches and salads. We have a separate delivery staff and sales team as well as a catering truck.

FE&S: What dayparts do you cover?

SW: We are open for breakfast, lunch and brunch, but also grab a decent afternoon coffee/bakery business. We offer specialty coffees, espresso and drip coffee. Community Canteen has a strong tea program as well as grab-and-go beverages, including bottled water, iced tea and vitamin-style drinks.

FE&S: In terms of equipment, what qualities are important to your operation?

SW: Speed of service is key, and we achieve this with our panini maker and speed oven. Also, because we do a lot of custom prep, flexibility is something we look for when purchasing equipment.

FE&S: Describe your equipment and production process.

SW: At our newer Sunset Hills location, the kitchen is in the front of house. The open cookline includes a panini maker, induction burners for heating soup and a rapid-cook oven. A convection oven is located in the back of house, along with prep sinks for washing produce, a slicer for cutting lunch meat, a mixer, a food processor for vegetable prep and walk-in refrigerators. We have a considerable amount of refrigerated space at our locations.

FE&S: What does the future hold for Community Canteen?

SW: Our menu specials program has continued to evolve. We also have changed our salad bar components with the seasons and to follow nutritionally based trends. We work with West Virginia farmers who bring us produce during the high season, and we buy local whenever possible. We've also expanded our grab-and-go offerings, providing a few prepackaged salads for those on the run.

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