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Fast Casual Or Bust

Fast Casual Or Bust

Growth is hard to come by in the restaurant business these days — unless you're in the fast casual segment. But suppose you're not. Could your concept be reengineered so that it somehow fits under the fast casual umbrella? Two restaurants — one a chain, one an independent — are about to find out.

Granted, the idea of adapting a brewpub concept to fit a fast casual service format seems like a stretch. But that's what the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant Group is doing at the Westfield Galleria in Roseville, CA (near Sacramento) with the opening of its first Gordon Biersch Tavern.

The location is ideal. If you run a restaurant and want foot traffic, Westfield Galleria is the place you want to go. Its 240-store lineup includes retailers that range from the luxurious (Tiffany and Co., Burberry, Luis Vuitton) to the pedestrian (i.e., Raider Image, which sells Oakland Raider NFL gear; Thomas Kinkade Secret Garden Gallery, purveyors of “fine art”). The department store anchor tenants are all biggies: Nordstrom, Macy's, JC Penney, Sears.

The restaurant opportunity can be seen by a quick scan of the food court's dining options. There are 10 choices, none of them offering anything resembling a brewpub's food and beer offerings.

Gordon Biersch Tavern is located adjacent to this mall's food court. It's a 1,400-sq. ft. space that seats 60, plus a small bar. The limited menu offers signature items drawn from the full menu served at the chain's 29 full-service units in the U.S. Making the cut for the fast casual menu were such offerings as American-style Kobe sliders, mahi-mahi fish tacos and signature garlic fries.

There's no onsite brewery in this Gordon Biersch brewpub-lite format, but a solid lineup of the company's handcrafted beers is available. So are plenty of wine-by-the-glass options, as well as higher-end nonalcoholic beverages including fresh-squeezed lemonade and housemade root beer.

It's a staggering array of beverages for a shopping mall food court, and that alone could make the place a huge draw. Gordon Biersch says it isn't scrimping on anything, resisting the tendency to cut corners when it reformatted its concept to work in a fast casual setting.

“We believe this is a natural extension of our brand,” says company president/c.e.o. Allen Corey. “We will continue with the same high quality, made-from-scratch menu and same level of service and hospitality in this concept.”

It helped that Gordon Biersch already has plenty of experience adapting to nontraditional venues. The company licenses its brand to operations located in a dozen airports. Given that experience, we think they've got a good shot at making a brewpub concept into a fast casual winner.

While Gordon Biersch is simplifying its way into fast casual, restaurateur Luca Giorgetti is going more complex. He's following up his popular Basic Bites salad/sandwich spot in Beverly Hills with Fresh Bites on Sunset Boulevard in L.A. The latter's more elaborate menu expands to include pastas, pizzas, grilled items and breakfast, all of it overseen by executive chef Claudio Marchesan (Pane E Vino, Chianti Cucina, Il Fornaio) and pastry chef Rebecca West (Bouley Bakery and Mercer Kitchen in New York City).

So how does Fresh Bites qualify as fast casual? It's the service format. Guests place and pay for their order at the cash register, then take one of the 120 seats in the indoor/outdoor dining area. Once seated, they watch through a glass curtain as cooks prepare their meal. When ready, the order is placed on a 30-foot-long conveyor belt that transports the finished plate down to the cashier. From there, staffers deliver the fully assembled order to the table.

Both Gordon Biersch and Fresh Bites are bringing something new to the fast casual segment. We think these approaches could resonate with burrito-fatigued fast casual customers. Who's next?