A new breed of restaurant is fast approaching on the horizon and starting to catch people’s attention. These concepts buck the traditional fast casual model in so many ways that it’s time to create a name for this new segment.
Vapiano is a fresh casual Italian concept that hails from Europe. Despite their counter-based service model, their food quality is astounding and the ambiance is very much that of casual dining. The cooks hand make pasta daily and boil it to order, pizzas are made from scratch before your eyes. The flavors are bold and delicious and so fresh.While Fast Casual Italian is still a very young and under-served market, the fledging competitors in the space can’t hold a candle to Vapiano in terms of food quality or ambiance. (Learn more about fast casual Italian.)
I personally think the burger space is ahuge bubble right now, and there are too many concepts for all of them to survive. That said, one of the survivors will almost certainly be Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack. Meyer of Setting The Table fame is one of New York’s premier restaurateurs and arguably one of the guys who kicked off the entire “better burger” craze. After building a near empire in NYC’s restaurant scene Meyer finally decide to scale one of his concepts – and he chose Shake Shack. The chef-driven deliciousness of Shake Shack is a fresh casual triumph over the build-your-own burgers of Five Guys. The freshness, quality and flavor of Shake Shack’s food creates an unquestionable gulf between the plethora of fast casual burger joints and the big boys like Shake Shack.
If you want to see what the future of restaurants looks like – visit Rick Bayless’ Xoco in Chicago. This beast of a Mexican concept is the most stark example distinguishing Fresh Casual from Fast Casual. As soon as you walk in the door you will realize exactly what I’m talking about (read here, my site report on Xoco). Xoco is just on another level compared to Chipotle, Moe’s or the other fast casual Mexican and burrito players. The ambiance, food quality and the service all fit perfectly into the fresh casual mold. The open kitchen showcases the handmade breads as well as the freshly prepared torta and soup. The ambiance is warm and cozy like a sit down restaurant – and after you order from the counter the service model is indistinguishable from top level casual dining.
Pei Wei, one of the older players in the space, fits the Fresh Casual mold to a tee. It is a full blown casual dining restaurantthat simply begins your order at a counter. The look, the feel, the service, the food quality, etc., all stand apart from a Panda Express (or even Chipotle’s new entry into the market Shop House) to such a degree that you can’t help but put Pei Wei in another category all to itself.
Wildflower is a 10,000-ton missile aiming straight for Panera. I first ate here out in Phoenix in 2012. I had heard several people hyping Wildflower up and I was convinced that there was no way it could live up to the hype: Wrong. Wildflower is a Panera with great food, a full kitchen, a much sexier ambiance and tremendous customer service. One spicy chipotle egg sandwich or order of pancakes (oh those fluffy, fluffy pancakes) at Wildflower and you will know the difference between Fresh Casual and Fast Casual.
OK, I know: I put Taziki’s on the list. But at Taziki’s we set out every day to define ourselves as Fresh Casual – to bring a new and better experience to our customers. Taziki’s food is all made completely fresh every day, no freezers and no fryers in the entire store. Our entire menu is designed by our team of chefs to craft delightful, different, and delicious flavor combinations. The décor is soft and inviting like a casual dining restaurant. The service model delivers much more to the customer than a traditional counter model: Food is delivered to the customer’s table, drinks are refilled, and the table is bussed for the customer. Similar players in the Mediterranean space like Garbanzo and Roti are both focused on assembly line style build your own menus, with sparse metallic interior and counter only service (essentially replicating Chipotle’s model but replacing the proteins and starches with Mediterranean ones).
Words can only do this distinction so much justice. Get out in the world and see these concepts for yourself. Eat at one and then the other and you will see what I’m talking about when I say that “Fresh Casual” is here to stay. After travelling across the country week after week and personally visiting all of these concepts, I can say hands down that Fresh Casual is a serious force to be reckoned with.