At the recent Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, a panel of upscale chefs discussed their thoughts on the fine-casual segment and how some of them have managed to include fine-casual restaurants into their restaurant groups. The discussion, part of the American Express Restaurant Trade Program, was moderated by James Beard Award winner Andrew Zimmern, who hosts the Bizarre Foods franchise on the Travel Channel. Sitting on the panel were:
• Rick Bayless, a James Beard Award winner who operates two higher-end Mexican Chicago restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. He also operates a Mexican fast-casual concept called Xoco and a Tortas Frontera, a sandwich concept at O’Hare International Airport.
• Danny Meyer, who operates several high-end New York City restaurants, two restaurants in the Whitney Museum of American Art and a burger concept, Shake Shack, that’s perched to become the next star of the fast-casual sector.
• Bobby Stuckey, a master sommelier who owns and operates Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder and a fast-casual pizza concept—Pizzeria Locale—in partnership with Chipotle Mexican Grill.
• Ashley Christensen, a James Beard Award winner and the chef/owner of Poole’s Diner, Beasley’s Chicken & Honey, Chuck’s and Fox Liquor Bar, all in Raleigh, NC.
Zimmern got the ball rolling by explaining that fine casual is simply an extension of giving customers what they want. He asked the panelists how they shifted from the higher end of the business into this new frontier of dining.
Bayless: I grew up in a restaurant family. I’m a fourth-generation restaurateur. I was not really interested in going into the restaurant world until I went to Mexico and fell madly in love with its cuisines. After writing my first cookbook (Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico), I realized that nobody could could do my recipes as well as I could. So I opened Frontera as a way of saying: Here is the benchmark. I’ve cooked this food a lot and I know what it should taste like. That’s where I started and in a way it’s exactly where we are today. Even though we have grown a lot, we have no real growth plan. I still don’t believe strongly in long-term growth plans because I think they can derail your or make you miss other opportunities along the way. So, instead we say to ourselves, “For today, what is my next right step or for this year, what is my next right step? It’s too hard to plan five years ago because there’s no telling what the world will be like in five years or what we’ll be like.
Zimmern: At what point was the right next step in terms of you embracing casual? At what point was introducing your products in grocery stores and opening Xoco and Tortas Frontera at the airport the next right step?
Bayless: Well, the first step was getting products in the grocery store. It wasn’t my idea, it was a regular customer’s idea. He was part of the grocery world and he talked me into it over a period of 16 months. He convinced me that I shouldn’t keep the flavors I was cooking within the four walls of Frontera. We needed to get them to a great number of people.
When it came to doing casual, we had Frontera, which is a midlevel restaurant, and Topolobampo, which is upscale. What was missing was the casual element that captures the vibrancy of Mexican street food. Everyone thinks that’s easy to do, but capturing the atmosphere of the street is what we struggled with the most when creating Gioco. But that was easier than doing the airport thing.
Zimmern: Why the airport?
Bayless: I never wanted to do the airport. The food at airports is awful. Nobody wants to eat food at the airport, but after getting drug into it kicking and screaming, I realized that everybody wants good food at an airport. But nobody is willing to do it. When I die I know that on my tombstone it will say only one thing, “He made good food at an airport.” Eight times a day people come up to me and don’t say anything about my restaurants, they just say how I saved them at O’Hare airport.
Shake Shack's development
Zimmern: Danny, what started you down the casual path to Shake Shack?
Meyer: I had two restaurants on Madison Park—Eleven Madison Park and Tabla— and we wanted to draw more people to the area. First thing we thought of doing was a hot dog cart, and before we knew it we had 70 people lined up at the cart. After a while we decided to blow it up and turn it into a 20-foot by 20-foot kiosk. So I wanted it to have all the things I grew up eating in St. Louis; pretzels and mustard, hot dogs, burgers, crinkle cut fries.
Zimmern: It’s quite a departure from fine dining.
Meyer: So many of us grew up in a fine-dining environment and were told that we can have only one restaurant. No one would take us seriously if we had more than one restaurant. It was even worse. The attitude was that if a customer came to the restaurant and didn’t see us there in the kitchen or at the front door, they would tell everyone not to ever go there again. That’s the environment we all grew up in.
Zimmern: When did that change?
Meyer: I remember 10 years ago the organizers had the vision to put the c.e.o.s of the Cheesecake Factory Applebee’s and I-Hop on this very stage. All the fine-dining people gasped. But we quickly realized they had we wanted and needed and they wanted and needed what we had. And lo and behold, consumers also wanted and needed what we both had. We all grew up in an upscale environment but then we began to question why we should be chained to one restaurant. But we had to come around to the belief that when you get involved with more than one restaurant, there are three things you have to deal with—quality, time and money—and you can’t have all three. You can only pick two to focus on. With fast food, you’re only going to get two: You’re going to going to get speed and save time and it’s going to be dirt cheap and you’ll save money. And we all knew the food quality wasn’t going to be that good.
With the upscale folks, they reimagined the equation. You still only get two of the three. You’re going to get better quality food, but you’re not going to save as much money as you would with fast food, but you’re getting all-natural beef and pork.
Zimmern: Do customers get the equation?
Meyer: In order to have a great pizza, great barbecue or the best tostada you’ve had in your life, customers are willing to spend a little more money and time in a fine casual environment in lieu of tablecloths, waiters, bartenders, reservations, the florists and all the things that you pay for in a fine dining restaurant. But in the end you get quality at the casual restaurant and pay 80 percent less than you would at a fine dining place.
Zimmern: We have come to learn that there are other cultures in America, like the South, or other cultures outside the United States, like Mexico, where fast does not necessarily mean sacrificing quality.
Christensen: My father was a truck driver when I was a kid and the food I grew up eating was in a diner. I wanted to express the food I grew up with and not necessarily elevate, but cook it the way it should be. When you’re traveling and you see a diner, you know exactly what to expect and I wanted to create an environment where tuxedos sit next to t-shirts. I had an opportunity to create a casual experience that includes a chalkboard menu, and we don’t offer tapas or giant plates. I, and I think a lot of other people, don’t want to eat on a stage. Like Danny, we wanted to open restaurants in a community to get people excited about the block, rather than locating on the main drag. We want to reenergize an area and encourage other businesses to take a chance on the block.
Zimmern: What are the differences between your restaurants?
Christensen: When you look at the numbers, we get 27,000 guests a year at Pool’s, while we get 175,000 customers a year at our fried chicken joint (Chicken & Honey). You realize that we have an opportunity at the casual restaurants to be there for people and be part of all the meals they are having. I love the pride they take in thinking our restaurant belongs to them. We get fired up when we hear that we serve their favorite burger (at Chuck’s).
From fine dining to fast casual
Zimmern: Bobby, how did you go from fine dining to fine casual?
Stuckey: We had an opportunity to work with Steve Ells (founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill) [on] how we could reach more people. We decided on Neapolitan pizza with great ingredients. We felt it was a healthier alternative to traditional pizza here. [Ells is a partner with Stuckey in a fast-casual pizza concept called Pizzeria Locale, which has units in Boulder, two in Denver, one in Kansas City and one in Cincinnati.]
Zimmern: These spaces where you have a captive audience, like airports, present opportunities. Now fine casual has taken us leap years ahead. There are all kinds of spaces where there are opportunities to raise the bar for the quality of food.
Meyer: Captive audience dining, happily, is good for us. When you think about it, people who can afford to go to a baseball game, museums and race tracks are the same people who can afford to pay for better food. People have come to realize, and this is good for all of us, that food plays an important role in the experience of attending a ball game or a museum, as everything else.
Zimmern: Danny, you’re not a fan of the whole fast thing.
Meyer: I prefer the name fine casual to fast casual. These restaurants are not always so fast because the value system of these casual places comes from many people who have grown up in the fine dining business. They care about their communities, they care about hospitality, they care about making you feel better. I don’t think it’s necessarily fast. When I’m at O’Hare, I’m willing to wait in line because I know what I will get on the other end is going to make be feel good.
Here’s the kicker: a lot of the good chains of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were great at what they did because they became one of the most powerful Xerox machines in the world. We were great at what we did because we produced great documents. I think what we’ll find is that it’s a lot easier to learn how to take a great document and scale it down than it is to reverse engineer better taste into a preexisting casual restaurant.
Zimmern: None of you started in the fine casual area, but in the future, I believe many will choose to start at fine casual rather than come from fine dining.
Bayless: When you thinking about the document and the Xerox thing, it’s the fine dining people who can reverse engineer down to the fine casual area. When we opened at O’Hare, they told us there were three things we had to know about working at O’Hare: (1) nobody will wait for anything, so all your food has to be premade so they can just pick it up; (2) nobody wants anything spicy, so you have to take all the spice out of your food; and (3) nobody wants anything aromatic because they are taking it on airplanes and nobody wants to open a box or bag of food and have everyone around them say, ‘What’s that person eating?’ So we didn’t listen and we gave people food that was made to order, spicy and very aromatic.
Zimmern: What are they missing?
Bayless: They feel they have a captive audience so they can make everything bland and ready to go, even though nobody wanted to eat that kind of food. Now they are trying to upgrade some of their food units at O’Hare, but they don’t come from the same perspective I come from (upscale) and they don’t have that love for the ingredients, the technique and how to create flavor. Those of us who come from that perspective of fine dining are in love with the food and we want our guest to have an amazing experience. That’s why this revolution in fine casual is coming from the fine dining folks.
Zimmern: There are a lot of folks who are doing fine casual who came from fine dining, but all of a sudden you’re seeing folks like Roy Choi who did not start in fine dining teaming up with guys like Daniel Patterson. [Choi is the creator of Kogi Korean taco trucks. He’s teamed up with Patterson, a two-star Michelin chef, to create Loco’l, a chef-driven fast-food restaurant.] I think we’re going to see a revolution of people not coming from fine dining getting into this fine-casual sector.
Audience question: How do you protect fine casual from becoming what you don’t like about fast food?
Meyer: Our first goal getting into this category was to always focus on quality. When we went from one Shake Shack to another, we made sure that one doesn’t look like the others. The goal of crating a shake shack is to make it your shake shack, so it has its own identify. Our culinary team will spend six weeks in a city we’re entering and eat in all the fine-dining restaurants. They will talk to all the chefs and ask who’s doing good stuff around town? Who’s making the best beer? Who does the best baked goods? Who’s making the best sausage? And then we’ll incorporate some of those products into the Shack. It’s a way to localize the experience.