Back in January of 2014, just after Top Chef Franklin Becker had opened up his quick-service, seasonally inspired, gluten-free restaurant the Little Beet, he told the Voice that he was opening a fast-casual restaurant, despite his fine-dining background, because “if we can change the masses, we can make a movement that changes the future.” The financials didn’t hurt, either. While he says one fine-dining restaurant is often more profitable than one fast-casual restaurant, the latter presents the possibility of growing a chain: The Little Beet currently has two locations, one in Manhattan and another on Long Island, and there are seven more already in the works, including a Washington, D.C., outpost.
Becker isn’t the only fine-dining stalwart that’s jumped into this game: Mas (farmhouse) and Almanac chef Galen Zamarra was recruited to head the North American culinary operations for Belgian chain EXKi, and Danny Meyer and Michael White alumnus Chris Jaeckle debuted his made-to-order sushi hand roll concept late last year.
The financial incentives of getting into the fast-casual game suggest the move is a no-brainer. According to an article in the Washington Post, since 1999, the sector has grown by more than 550 percent. Last year alone, Americans spent more than $21 billion at fast-casual restaurants. So it’s no wonder traditional chefs are starting to make the switch.
For Jaeckle, who is also the chef and partner at modern Italian restaurant All’onda, much of the decision to open Uma Temakeria was financial: It’s simply easier to make money in the fast-casual sector. “I’m building a family,” he says. “Regardless of what everyone thinks of a restaurant, we’re not wealthy.” He was a firsthand witness to the rise of Shake Shack while working for Meyer, so the idea has been in the back of his mind for years.
Just like most of the working populace, Jaeckle struggled to find options other than pizza and burgers when he was looking for a quick bite. So when he stumbled upon an article in the New York Times exploring the rise of temaki joints in Brazil, he decided to do some research. The concept seemed promising, so he decided to build out a restaurant. “In urban environments, fast-casual concepts are outpacing sit-down restaurants,” he says. “It’s solving a problem; restaurants are a luxury, and a time commitment. It’s not befitting to the way the culture is going.”
Jaeckle has a partner, Cynthia Kueppers, who has been handling the business side of things; she’s been responsible for the fundraising, negotiations, and day-to-day operations. Even so, Jaeckle is on site several days a week handling kitchen training; unlike All’onda’s, Uma’s kitchen staff are not CIA-trained chefs, so the teaching process is a completely different beast from a high-end eatery. Jaeckle is constantly going over sauces and proper rice preparation to ensure quality.
Uma Temakeria is now preparing to open a second kiosk in Madison Square Eats in May.
With Uma, Jaeckle caters to a segment of health-conscious diners many chefs are currently trying to reach. Americans are spending more on organics, and since 2010 (and the end of the financial crisis), shops like Whole Foods Markets have been seeing steady increases in sales. Chefs transitioning into the fast-casual sector are banking not just on speed and convenience, but also on Americans’ growing appetite for nutritionally sound fare.
Becker and his partners were also drawn to the changes in Americans’ dining habits, and that helped the chef overcome his fear that he’d feel like he was selling out for a quick buck. Despite all the emphasis on the potentially nefarious nature of gluten, there was a lack of gluten-free options in the fast-casual sector. Plus, as he researched the quick-service segment, he realized there were no chef-driven fast-casual restaurants in existence — the idea of feeding more people with higher-quality food appealed to his inner skeptic. “The South almost entirely exists on fast-casual and QSR,” says Becker. “There are very few fine-dining restaurants, and the reason is economics. If you appeal to pocketbooks, you’re feeding the masses with better food, more flavorful food.”
The Little Beet offers a handful of proteins (ranging from salmon and steak to tofu and veggie patties) along with healthy sides (quinoa, roasted sweet potatoes, and charred kale), salads, and cold-pressed juices. Becker believes that by offering wholesome fare with lower price points, he’s able to cater to the growing group of Americans looking to eat more nutritionally dense foods.
Galen Zamarra got involved in the fast-casual sphere because he was recruited, but it was ultimately the promise of taking his philosophy to a wider audience that made him commit. When veggie-centric Belgian chain EXKi began working its way toward American markets, it sought out Zamarra to translate the menu for American audiences. “They wanted to find a local chef, someone especially strong with vegetables and connected with the local food system,” says Zamarra.
Zamarra and European executive chef Frank Fol discussed how to create fare for a fast-casual environment — a vastly different process from that of high-end eateries. At his restaurants, Zamarra plates and serves his food immediately, he doesn’t really use recipes, and he has a staff of highly trained chefs he employs to cook all day long.
For EXKi, an inexpensive grab-and-go chain, Zamarra worked with his European counterparts to develop spreadsheets, write stringent recipes, and figure out how to ensure the food prepared was not just good when it was made, but hours later as well. Zamarra quickly discovered that with sandwiches and salads served chilled, he had to add extra seasoning, as flavors aren’t as easily discernible in cold foods. “My first tasting for them, everything was great,” says Zamarra. “It was all made to order in my restaurant. But things have to last. I had a lot of back-and-forth with the chefs in Europe.”
And where Becker and Jaeckle designed their concepts to appeal to the American palate and diners’ value-centric sensibilities, Zamarra had to modify EXKi’s existing framework to fit our culture. Veggies like kale and brussels sprouts are huge here, but don’t fare so well in the EU. Same goes for tortillas and wraps; in Europe, it’s all about chewy baguettes. Shortly after the first store was rolled out, Zamarra had to change portion sizes; he made the salads, sandwiches, and other dishes about 30 percent larger. And it’s taken time (and buying power) to obtain the locally driven products the chain wanted to provide. Eventually, EXKi would like to find farmers who will rear eggs, chickens, and other products specifically to fit EXKi’s free-range and antibiotic- and hormone-free ethos. “Whether we work with a farmer for salad greens or eggs, once EXKi is growing more consistently, that farmer can give more attention to provide that for us,” says Zamarra. (For now, you will find free-range chicken and hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, and locally roasted coffee from Fair Trade Certified Organic beans.)
Becker says this movement of chefs into fast-casual is a natural evolution: “The same thing you can eat for $100, you can now eat for $50,” he told the Voice last year. “So consumers think, ‘I don’t have to spend $100 to have a great dinner, I can spend $50’ — or $15, at the Little Beet, and get a great meal. This is just that evolution. People are much more conscious. They’re much more conscious of what they’re putting in their bodies. They want to know you care.”
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.