Fast-Casual is still a relatively new thing, the term itself – which denotes a high quality self-service restaurant that cooks food to order – was only added to the Oxford Dictionary back in 2015, but the idea was put in motion back in the 1990s when certain chains, think Chipotle, stepped away from fast food norms to offer concepts to more discerning consumers willing to pay higher prices for better quality food.
That early consumer demand to eat healthier, tastier and, albeit, pricier food, is something that has continued to grow. Market research company Euromonitor report that the Fast-Casual market has increased by 550% since 1990 and a quick glance at the landscape shows the likes of Shake Shack, a company which opened in 2004 and went public in 2015, continuing to expand.
With consumers demanding it, forecasts predicting growth that outweighs almost every other food model on the market, and the creativity that opening a successful fast-casual chain requires, it wasn’t going to be long before the big chefs dressed down and came to casual town.
Across the US, chefs have stepped away from fine dining kitchens to turn their techniques towards producing delicious dishes that match the fast-casual criteria. Famously, Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi stepped up in 2014 as Patterson walked away from an executive chef position at a two Michelin-starred restaurant to open LocoL. Chef Ben Daitz opened the Cambodian sandwich joint, Num Pang, in 2009 after years working in some of New York’s best restaurants and David Chang followed in 2015 with his take on fried chicken, Fuku. Many other chefs have, or plan to, follow suit.
This is the work of the Michelin-starred chef José Andrés - his first fast-casual concept and also his first major step towards vegetable driven cuisine. There are currently five different locations of Beefsteak in Washington and Philadelphia – rapid growth for something that was only opened in 2015. Andrés has created a range of soups, salads and veggie bowls for a menu that promises ‘vegetables, unleashed.’
For Andrés, the motivation is simple: "I think fast-casual is the way of the future, it’s revolutionizing the food world! People don’t just want cheap fast food anymore, they want good food, fast! They want to better understand where their food is coming from and feel a connection to that. We as chefs love to feed people, this is what I’ve been doing for decades so doing this in a bigger, high quality way is so exciting. For me, that’s why we opened Beefsteak."
Chef Jody Adams has already rolled out two locations of her Greek street food fast casual concept alongside partners Eric Papachristos and Jonathan Mendez, and they have plans to open three more locations during 2017. This Boston based restaurant offers up made to order pita breads, salads and rices bowls alongside a selection of meats including honey braised pork shoulder and greek sausages.
For Adams, who has spent years working in fine dining, the task was perfect: "Americans really know good food. They don’t want to compromise, even for a sandwich or a bowl of soup. The challenge was there and we took it on. As a chef who has been working in the fine dining world for over 30 years, I welcomed a shake up. It was a risk, but well worth it. It’s been so much fun to take all those years of experience and step into a new arena – the fast-casual world – roll up my sleeves and create a menu with recipes that are delicious, affordable and healthy."
Opening in March this year, Made Nice is the new fast-casual concept from three Michelin star chef Daniel Humm and his business partner Will Guidara. It will serve eight to 10 dishes riffing on combinations perfected at the duo’s two other restaurants, Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad. They will clock in at around $12 to $15, a price point that Guidara says is an attraction: "We’re inspired by the idea of social food – that food can be delicious, affordable, a part of people’s lives more regularly, and very accessible. For a long time you had to sacrifice quality for convenience and affordability and we’re looking forward to trying to change that."
One of the most ambitious ideas mentioned so far is that of chef Mark Ladner who has stepped away from his position at the Del Posto restaurant to launch Pasta Flyer. The plan for the Italian-themed pasta restaurant is to serve 'the highest-quality ingredients in less than 3 minutes for under $10' and the first location is set to open in New York this month.
"It has been a longtime professional and personal dream to make high-quality, Italian cuisine more accessible in America," says Ladner, "Pasta Flyer is at once warm, hospitable and Italian in spirit, but also quick and affordable enough for everyone to enjoy." The new place will serve three different types of pasta, which can be combined with one of five traditional Italian sauces.
Anyone still doubting the demand for fast-casual should note that Pasta Flyer was launched with the help of crowdfunding on Kickstarter, 450 different people helped back the project, raising $89,000.
The Taste of Technique
All of the chefs above are taking tried and tested techniques honed over years in the kitchen and applying them to making food more delicious. Whether it's perfectly crispy chicken, a burger cut with grain to allow for the use of better quality meat, or perfect 'al dente' pasta promised in just 15 seconds. Chefs coming from the very top and applying their knowledge to food aimed at a mass market is something everyone should be excited about.
Yes, it’s more healthy, more sustainable, and more accessible than the tasting menus on offer in classic fine dining restaurants, but the dedicated focus on delicious remains the same. In fact, if anything, the greatest testament to the fast-casual places already on offer is how they have taken fast food and finally injected flavour, “good food, fast”, as Andrés so eloquently puts it.