The Belgians are storming New York. The veggie-centric, fast-casual chain EXKi (257 Park Avenue South; 212-533-2011) landed on American shores earlier this year with the opening of its first location, in Gramercy Park. It’s now getting ready to spread out with a second midtown outpost next month.
Started in Brussels in 2001, the eatery aimed to bring high-quality all-natural and organic ingredients to the fast-casual sector in Europe. Frank Fol, known as “the vegetable chef” in Europe, designed a seasonally changing menu with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients. Prior to consulting at EXKi, he was recognized throughout meat-heavy Belgium for using veggies as the center of the plate and protein as an accoutrement. EXKi took off almost immediately, filling the void for healthy fare in a hurry. “We were directly a success,” says CEO Laurent Kahn. “A lot of people were looking for good quality and quick. We were right on the trend.”
In 2006, the brand branched out to Paris, where it recently opened its 24th location. In 2007, it moved into Italy. It now has 75 locations across the continent.
With the launch of its first U.S. location in June, the chain aimed to bring the same philosophy to the U.S. To design the menu, it recruited Galen Zamarra, of Mas and Almanac. Creating recipes with the seasons in mind, Zamarra has been slowly incorporating more and more local produce and ingredients. The brie is an example of such; rather than spend half the amount on French commercial product, the restaurant opts to buy its cheese from Vermont. “We really strive to focus on local, seasonal products,” says Kahn. “It’s really all-natural, not fake all-natural.”
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, EXKi serves a wide range of vegetable-dominant soups, salads, sandwiches, and entrees. Look for dishes like the Hot Brussels ($7.85), with brussels sprouts, pumpkin, onions, pumpkin seeds, mint, and Sriracha maple dressing. Made on local stone-baked bread, grab-and-go sandwiches feature options like the Chicken Monsoon ($6.85) with mushroom emulsion. Salads include options like Chop Bok Shrimp ($5.45) with ginger carrot emulsion and sesame dressing. For those desiring something less veg-forward, there are Baked Sourdough Tartines, including the Countryside ($7.95) with bacon lardons and Jasper Hill brie.
Although locations here follow the ethos of its European forebear, the company has had to adjust its offerings for the U.S. market. Where baguettes are the most popular sandwiches in the motherland, softer bread has fared better in New York. Where croissants are the breakfast of choice for Europeans, EXKi has incorporated more egg wraps and frittatas for American audiences. Many recipes from Belgium have been imported, but the chain has worked to blend in sweeter elements to many of its products to appease the different flavor preferences of customers over here. “There’s a different palate,” says Kahn. “Before opening, we did a lot of tests and focus groups with New Yorkers, but we’ve been learning more since we opened.”
Another area in which the chain is learning to adjust is its environmental impact. With a large emphasis on minimizing its carbon footprint, it has been working with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) for well over a decade. In Europe, the chain works closely with the group to calculate its precise ecological footprint; it has an action plan with an eye on green energy, reclaimed building materials, supply chain, and recyclable packaging. In New York, on the other hand, the company is still learning the market. It has been collaborating with the Green Restaurant Association (it has earned two stars with the organization) to figure out how to effectively reduce its impact. Like its European stores, it uses green cleaning products and recyclable packaging, but it has been using sustainable wood from North American sources and organic uniforms. “Uniforms are important for us since cotton is so resources-intensive,” says Kahn. “It has a high environmental impact.”
Slated to open its doors on February 18, the new midtown location (78 Madison Avenue) will feature a different style and decor from the existing New York outpost; the company likes to give each store a completely different look and feel. As soon as it is up and running, Kahn and his team will begin seeking out a third New York location; at the moment, he is thinking another midtown outlet, or somewhere in the financial district. The aim is to expand to a couple dozen. “If all goes well, the plan is to open between 25 and 30 in New York,” says Kahn. “Maybe we’ll spread throughout the U.S., but not so fast. Chicago, D.C., and Boston are possibilities.”