4Food: A Lesson in a Fast Casual Reboot


Of all the things that can derail a successful business, one is particularly frustrating: scaffolding. And 4Food, a fast casual concept that opened three years ago in Midtown, was quickly covered with the stuff shortly after its opening, impeding its visibility. The restaurant immediately suffered from a lack of brand recognition, and, making matters worse, the feedback surrounding the restaurant’s opening wasn’t overly positive for those who did make it inside.

If you remember the concept at all, it might be as the place with the donut hole burger. Or that place with way too many choices and too many service issues. People didn’t embrace the iPad ordering system or the restaurant’s healthy alternative to fast food, and they took to social media to vent frustrations. Sometimes, these results were displayed in store via 4food’s big screen, which displayed its Twitter feed.

Still, the business has been open for three years, and it is firmly entrenched in its beliefs. And as more and more individuals and businesses accept technology as a method of communicating and completing transactions, it’s possible that 4Food’s goal to combine healthy food and technology to improve the customer experience will be achieved after all.

“We consider ourselves the first socially responsible and first socially networked restaurant,” notes co-founder Michael Shuman. Obviously, being the first of anything is a tough racket, though those that plant the first roots typically last a lot longer than the imitators that follow if they can make it.

Perhaps 4Food’s most distinguishable attribute is its ability to constantly put the customer in the driver’s seat. From its original inception, customer feedback–sometimes in real time–was a cornerstone of the operation. It’s the reason the restaurant added menu items like rice and salad bowls instead of just burgers. The concept also obtained a beer and wine license to appease customers. Patrons can create their own order, name it, and even contribute charity proceeds from their creation’s sales. That program, dubbed Good4All, became a permanent fixture after the restaurant began raising funds to support the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011.

Another major upgrade came in online delivery. 4Food is now completely integrated with platforms like SeamlessWeb and as opposed to only offering its own delivery platform as it did in the beginning.

In-store operations received slight tweaks, with additional iPads being affixed to the counter for orders as opposed to more employees walking around the store with them. After all, human error is decreased when less humans are involved. Mobile payment options like Level Up have also been fully integrated.

Perhaps the greatest innovation of all embraced by Shuman’s team over the past three years isn’t bound to one particular platform or tool, but a belief in time. Time for technology to develop. Time for people to become socially conscious during a lunch break. Time for people to accept that healthy food–even if it looks kind of funny–is still better than regular looking junk food. After all, the public’s vision of what they want to eat can change a lot in three years–especially if a barrier like scaffolding has been in the way.