The New Fast-Casual Chef: Moving From Full Service to Limited Service

The continuing popularity of fast-casual concepts keeps drawing the attention of some of the fine-dining segment’s biggest names. But designing and equipping a fast-casual restaurant can differ greatly from developing a fine-dining concept, as one design consultant and chef point out.

Years after fine-dining chefs Wolfgang Puck and Tom Colicchio moved into the fast-casual arena, increasing numbers of retail-minded chefs continue to open their own, elevated quick-service outlets.

But this isn’t the fast food restaurant of years past. The Washington Post’s “The Chipotle Effect” blog post summarizes this phenomenon by roughly defining the new fast-casual concept as a limited-service restaurant with a modern, contemporary design that offers a customizable ordering platform of fresh, natural and high-quality food at affordable prices.

Technomic research shows the fast-casual segment continues to steal share from full-service chains and drive limited-service growth. In fact, fast-casual now accounts for 15 percent of the $231 billion limited-service restaurant segment. Since 1999, the fast-casual sector, which stands a notch above fast food in food quality and experience, has grown a whopping 550 percent, according to Euromontior, a market research firm.

Simply put, as the fast-casual sector continues to take off, many chefs want a piece of the action. On the consumer end, diners want fine-dining quality food at fast-casual prices and with added flexibility, customization and convenience.

“Opening a fast-casual restaurant can be a great way of capturing different day parts and additional business that you don’t get with a dinner-only fine dining restaurant,” says Peter Christensen, FCSI, a kitchen designer and principal of Christensen Consultants, who has helped a few chefs open quick-serve outposts. “Serving lunch or even breakfast can provide a secondary source of income in a more casual format versus simply opening up their fine dining restaurant earlier, which is very different.”

Opening fast-casual eateries can also provide an extra creative outlet for chefs looking to parlay the creativity they have in the fine-dining space to make it work with something on a simpler level, says Christensen. “They want to offer that signature ‘oomph’ people are used to but in a less intense format.”

The recent influx of chefs turned quick-serve operators can be most notably characterized by the explosion of Shake Shack, a fast-casual "better burger" concept owned by New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer, known for his fine-dining institutions Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café. But many other chefs around the country continue to jump on the fast-casual bandwagon.

For example, Gerard Craft, the six-time James BeardBest Chef: Midwest finalist and owner of Niche Food Group that operates the acclaimed Niche, Brasserie, Taste and Pastaria restaurants in St. Louis plans to open Porano Pasta + Gelato, a quick-serve pasta eatery in the Mercantile Exchange district downtown. “We just wanted to create a place where you could go to get good honest food at good prices without the pretense of all these deconstructed things you might find in fine dining, or the poetic version of a simple pasta dish,” says Craft. “We’re busy people – always on the run – and even though I’m a chef we’re not always cooking at home so we’ll grab Chipotle or something else fast.”

Still, it’s not that easy for culinarians to simply switch gears and open a quick-serve restaurant when they’re used to full service. This is where foodservice consultants, both designers and management advisory services, become especially important. “The biggest challenge for many chefs is stepping into a completely new environment they might not be 100 percent sure about,” says Christensen. “You have to analyze the concept closely and see if what you’re doing is really adaptable and the right formula for quick service. Ego has to be set aside and you have to have a really good business model.”

While some chefs might have experience in limited-service restaurants, others coming straight from full-service operations or even from Europe, where the style of quick-service differs greatly from that in the U.S., tend to need more guidance through the changes. That said, here’s a run-down of the different steps involved in opening a fast-casual restaurant from Christensen and Craft.

Analyze the Menu

In helping sketch out the design for the new fast-casual restaurant, Christensen always starts with the menu.

“My main job is to analyze the menu and come up with a design scheme and kitchen layout to meet the requirements,” says Christensen. “Most chefs are resourceful enough to format their own menu, but we want to make sure whatever we design for them is flexible enough to change and adapt to new trends.”

That means installing some multi-use equipment, putting all the equipment on castors, and designing for extra space under the hood in case the restaurant requires more or different equipment later. Christensen also recommends a more general fire suppression system that will not require any changes if the equipment package changes.

Determine Service Style

Many fast-casual restaurants – at least those operating as quick-serve eateries – typically feature an open ordering system where customers either wait for their food at a counter or while seated as in a hybrid system where staff members deliver the food tableside.

Porano Pasta + Gelato, essentially the quick-serve version of Craft’s more casual Pastaria restaurant, will feature a Chipotle-style, build-your-own pasta and salad bowls with customizable vegetables and naturally raised proteins like brisket, pork and meatballs, along with an array of sauces (Sunday sugo with pork, pomodoro, roasted red pepper), and different toppings like pistachios, pickled raisins, fresh herbs, olives, pecorino and breadcrumbs. Craft chose strozzapreti, a hearty, extruded pasta similar to cavatelli that holds up well to heat, sauces and toppings without getting mushy.

Other than food choices, “It’s important to come up with the right ordering platform to complement the concept and think about how that’s going to be different from the full-service restaurant,” says Christensen. The change might involve a new type of POS system, and/or perhaps a portable or touch screen ordering process.

The nature of the concept impacts the production method as well. For example, though pizza has dominated the quick-serve sector in the past and as of late with new concepts boasting Chipotle-like service, pasta isn’t as easy to execute, Craft says. “You have to hire the right people to make sure the pasta is always perfect every time,” says Craft. “We’re training real restaurant chefs to learn how to run these types of restaurants, which will offer them just as good or a better career than in fine dining world.”

Futurize The Space

To determine if the location of the concept will work, Christensen looks at the space’s street exposure, parking availability and demographics of the potential customers.

In some cases, chefs and restaurateurs can open a retail or quick-serve outlet if they’ve made space for it within or next to their full-service operation. For example, when Formento’s opened earlier this year in Chicago, the owners of the old school-meets-modern Italian restaurant opened Nonna’s, a sandwich takeout, in a small space next door.

“The ones who do find creative ways to futurize their space are thinking in the right direction,” says Christensen. “In new construction projects, thinking how you can use the space in a different way if things don’t work out, or thinking of an easy way to convert the space into two formats is smart.”

Examine Equipment Needs

Aside from flexibility, fast-casual restaurants often require equipment packages that differ greatly from full-service, finer dining concepts. “In fine dining you want a high-quality, heavy-duty equipment package, such as heavy-duty ranges and ovens,” says Christensen. “For the QSR format you might move down to lighter duty equipment depending on size of operation and the budget.”

Equipment also needs to be extremely user friendly in the case of a lack of highly trained cooks and because there might be more students and part-time employees. No super technical controls allowed.

At Porano, Craft chose equipment based on a need for extreme consistency. He looked to pasta cookers with timers, special pasta extruder machines and programmable combi ovens for meat cookery to make it easier on staff to produce quality food all the time.

Elevate Interior Design

In the modern fast-casual sector, serving elevated yet affordable food brings with it the need for elevated, contemporary design.

“We wanted to design Porano Pasta + Gelato with as much personality as our other restaurants so it doesn’t feel like a sterile fast food restaurant,” says Craft. Concrete floors, schoolhouse lighting, church pews and hand-crafted wood tables flanked by walls decorated with photos of Craft’s family and trips to Italy give the space a comfortable, communal vibe. An open kitchen with a front-and-center pasta-making station gives off a sense of freshness and transparency.

For full-service, dinner-only restaurant operators, opening a fast-casual outpost can help bring in extra dollars and diners. But making the switch can take an even greater dose of planning and preparation to compete with the Chipotles of the world.

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