From fine dining to fast-casual: why top US chefs are changing direction

Saison_SFAt the three-Michelin-starred Saison in San Francisco Joshua Skenes is offering one of the world’s most exclusive dining experiences. His multi-course tasting menus comprise a parade of delicacies with no luxury spared. Lobster, caviar, foie gras and truffles are skilfully prepared in dishes showcasing a complexity of textures and flavours that translates to nothing short of pure culinary indulgence. But with a price tag of over $1,000 for a dinner for two – excluding wine – Skenes’ cooking is available only to an elite few.

This is about to change. Skenes has teamed up with renowned casual restaurant operator Adam Fleischman of the Umami Burger and 800 Degrees Pizzeria chains, to launch a fast-casual concept called Fat Noodle, which is set to open its first unit in San Francisco in the next six months. Here bowls of hand-pulled noodles inspired by the flavours of western China’s Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces created under the guidance of Skenes will be available for less than $10 in a concept the duo hopes to roll out across the USA and beyond. “My plan was always to do both a very high-end restaurant like Saison and then also a very low-end restaurant,” Skenes, one of just 11 three-star chefs in the USA, explains. “While I appreciate the craft of cooking at the highest level, I also want to have accessibility and give people access to great food at a cheap price point.”

Skenes is part of a tidal wave of top chefs and restaurateurs flooding into the fast-casual market – the fastest growing segment of the US restaurant industry – including the likes of David Chang, Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi, and José Andrés (see panel). But what makes the fast-casual sector so appealing to these fine dining chefs? According to Darren Tristano, executive vice president at food service research and consulting firm Technomic, the key to its success is fast-casual’s unique ability to combine the convenience of fast food with the quality of full service restaurants. “The sector has focused on a more simple menu that provides food that is better than traditional fast food and on par with full service casual dining restaurants. The appeal is largely to the younger and more affluent consumer who is willing to pay more for a fresh, quality product,” he says. “High-end chefs know good food and affluent consumers, therefore, they are moving down to a more mainstream product with a consumer they are already familiar with to create growth opportunities in a very competitive environment.”

And competitive certainly is the word. Data from Technomic suggests that fast-casual restaurant growth is outpacing all other sectors in the US eating out market, having jumped from $8b to $35b between 2002 and 2013. Current sales are up 11 per cent, compared to 4 per cent among quick-service restaurants, and 5.6 per cent in casual dining. Given the phenomenal success of the fast-casual movement, it’s no surprise then to see high-end chefs honing in on it; after all it presents a great opportunity for the likes of Skenes to reach a much larger audience.

“By nature of the business, fast casual model allows us to feed more people per day than we otherwise would do in a full service restaurant,” says Jim Biafore, director of operations at Beefsteak, a new fast-casual chain launched by celebrity chef José Andrés. “By the sheer numbers this does allow us to grow and build more locations, which allows us to reinvest our resources in our people and communities.” Moreover, Tristano adds fast-casual restaurants can be an attractive hedge for high-end chefs and provide a more diversified approach to their restaurant portfolio. “Recently, the success of Shake Shack has proved that a great fast-casual concept from a major chef/restaurateur can be incredibly lucrative,” he says.

Indeed the two biggest inspirations for a lot of chefs entering the fast-casual arena are celebrated New York restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, which has grown from a hotdog stand to a global chain valued at more than $1b after a recent IPO; and Mexican giant Chipotle, which, started by erstwhile fine dining chef Steve Ells more than 20 years ago, is now expanding at a rate of four new outlets a week. “It comes down to the simple idea of guests wanting access to high quality food at a great price,” insists Randy Garutti, chief executive officer at Shake Shack. “Talented chefs are seeing this and acting on it. They’re bringing their sought-after expertise and culinary craft to the table in new and creative ways. They’re pursuing something they’re passionate about like never before.”

A number of high-profile US chefs have made a successful move into fast-casual. They include Wolfgang Puck, whose chain Wolfgang Puck Express launched in 1991, way before the term fast-casual was even coined; Tom Colicchio of New York City’s Craft, whose sandwich-focused ‘wichcraft is in two US States; and Bobby Flay, whose hamburger chain Bobby’s Burger Palace has grown to 17 locations worldwide. But the landscape is about to get a lot more crowded, with a bunch of chefs debuting fast-casual concepts this year (see panel). They are elevating sandwiches, burgers, noodles, tacos, pizza and more, and are reimagining fast, healthy eating at a cost affordable to the masses. For high-end chefs wanting to move into the fast-casual sector need to fully understand the lower- and middle-income consumer and provide a quality food offer that is inexpensive. “Taking a high-end offering at $50-$100 per person down to a $9-$12 format can be challenging,” says Tristano. “These chefs need to be able to create their food in a smaller environment with fewer ingredients, less equipment and with a team that is fully engaged with customers through interaction.”

Ethan Stowell, whose eponymous restaurant group in Seattle includes nine top-end restaurants, plus the fast-casual Ballard and Frelard Pizza Companies, which he plans to grow to 10 outlets in the next five years, says the key skill is for chefs to apply their knowledge of products and food to a different business model. “It’s the same approach as making a foie gras terrine,” he says. “You have to figure out a way to make it the best you possibly can. But the difference is that you can break away from it eventually. Fast-casual restaurants don’t require you to be there all the time like fine dining restaurants. People who come to my pizza restaurants don’t expect to see me there and some of them don’t even know who I am. It’s a very different customer base. This is echoed by Fleischman who insists that only certain types of fine dining chefs can make a successful transition into fast-casual. “The concept has to be strong, and it cannot require a chef-driven presence,” he warns. “The food is everything, and folks distrust big name chefs on low-end concepts.”

Ultimately, a for a chef wanting to manage both fine dining and fast-casual operations it comes down to two key factors, concludes Stowell: “You have to have a strong team in place that allows you to break away for a while. And you have to have a mind for business. If you are going to run two totally different concepts and you apply the same principles of your business model onto both, there’s a chance it might not work.”

This is an extract from an article I wrote for The Caterer. You can read the full version by visiting the thecaterer.com.

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