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New spins on fast casual

Two restaurant companies take much-different approaches to fast casual.

Restaurant companies want to tap into the fast casual segment’s nonstop growth. Let’s look at two organizations taking much-different paths toward this goal.

On the entrepreneurial front, the only people who haven’t liked Columbus, OH-based Piada Italian Street Food are the investors who assumed they got into it on the ground floor via their shares of casual Italian standout Bravo Brio Restaurant Group. They didn’t. While Piada is the brainchild of Bravo Brio cofounder Chris Doody, this six-unit fast casual startup is a separate entity.  

At Piada, Doody has adapted the fast casual format to showcase Italian food with great style. Customers choose a base ( a tortilla-like piada, a pasta bowl or a salad bowl), add a grilled item (chicken, steak, veggie) and one of six sauces and move down the line to the cashier. Price points are modest, with basic items costing under $7. The lone exception: salmon, which goes for $8.95.

Given Piada’s broad-for-the-segment menu (there’s calamari in addition to salmon, plus three kinds of soup, including lobster bisque for $4.75), this concept is poised for a quick buildout. It’s about to move beyond its Columbus base into Dayton, OH. Next up: Cleveland.

QSR giant Taco Bell isn’t building anything new for its venture into fast casual. Instead, it will be offering a Chipotle Mexican Grill-like “Cantina Bell” menu alongside its regular fare in existing units.

Chef Lorena Garcia consulted on the new items. They include the Cantina burrito (larger than Taco Bell’s standard burrito) and a Cantina burrito bowl. Customers can fill them with either chicken or steak, plus black beans and cilantro rice.  Price points hover just under $5. A $20 million marketing push and the chain’s 5,800-store footprint give it a strong chance of success.

Fast casual may not be a growth panacea for every brand. But it looks like it’s going to be one for Piada and Taco Bell. Who’s next?

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