Top Chefs Go Casual

There was a time when diners had to save up and make reservations weeks in advance to enjoy signature dishes from famed chefs. But now, “celebrichef” fare is more accessible than ever before. Famous culinary faces are flooding the fast casual industry, as fine-dining chefs look to expand their empires. Tom Colicchio recently opened his ninth location of 'wichcraft, a farm-to-table, fast-casual concept in New York City. Rick Bayless sells breakfast, lunch and dinner—with equal parts speed and authentic Mexican flavors—at Xoco in Chicago. And renowned chef Gerard Craft of St. Louis’ acclaimed Niche restaurant launched a point-and-pick Italian spot called Porona Pasta that features house-made pasta and focaccia.

Celebrity chef-driven fast-casual concepts aren’t entirely new. Wolfgang Puck launched Wolfgang Puck Express back in 1991. However, the trend has exploded in recent years—the National Restaurant Association ranked celebrity-driven fast-casual concepts as the No. 2 trend in its annual What's Hot report for 2016.

What makes the fast-casual space so appealing to chefs who typically veer toward full service? Darren Tristano, president of the restaurant industry research firm Technomic points to broader appeal and lower investments. In addition, the fast-casual industry is a major revenue opportunity: The segment climbed 11.5% in 2015 alone, reaching $44 billion.

“In the fast-casual format, we can feed a million people a week,” says Pat Peterson, executive chef at Beefsteak, the cheekily named eatery opened by James Beard Award-winning chef Jose Andres in 2015. And more chefs are realizing high volume doesn’t have to mean low standards. “Chef Jose has been watching how people have been eating for years, and saw that guests want more and more vegetables,” Peterson says. At Beefsteak, veggies are the star—alongside Andres, of course. The signature beefsteak tomato burger is served on an olive oil brioche bun and contains no meat.

With so many marquee culinary names storming the fast-casual market, what can other operators do to keep the playing field level

Differentiate; Don't Imitate

It may be tempting to think, "Shake Shack was a hit, so why not Malt Mansion?," but Tristano warns that for lasting success, it's imperative for each fast casual to carve its own path. "You can copy successful brands and do well, but that really isn't a great strategy," he says. "You have to look for inspiration from these chefs but create a concept that's more differentiated."

That was the approach hospitality group Element Collective took in 2014 when opening its first fast-casual concept, Leghorn Chicken, a socially conscious chicken joint in Chicago that’s popular for its fried chicken sandwiches, buttermilk biscuits, housemade buns and giant chocolate chip cookies. “A lot of people have said, 'We want to do a contemporary version of a Popeyes or a KFC'—a bone-in concept. Not many people have gone into the category of fried chicken sandwiches," says partner Chris Dexter of the group's approach. "There's tremendous opportunity within that category that most people haven't tackled yet."

Cultivate a Unique Personality

For most chef-driven fast-casual restaurants, the brand's identity is synonymous with the chef behind it (think Bobby Flay's Bobby’s Burger Palace or  Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen), which creates a shortcut straight to consumers' hearts, stomachs and wallets. For other fast-casual chains, though, crafting an unforgettable brand identity takes elbow grease.

For Leghorn, that meant embracing what Dexter calls a "hip-hop Americana" aesthetic, manifested through hip-hop music piped into the dining area and an irreverent, edgy corporate manifesto. While it's an approach that Dexter concedes won't work for everyone, it’s been successful for Leghorn, demonstrating the power of a well-defined image accompanied by meticulous decor and marketing choices. "It's allowed us to build a lot more personality into the brand," he says. 

Branding is only part of the journey to success, of course. Those looking to grow should consider expanding into new territory.

Take Off to a New Destination

Fast-casual leaders know the format allows for greater and faster scaling than full-service—but few have ventured into airports. Among those few is Wolfgang Puck. The iconic restaurateur was not only one of the first celebrity chefs to enter into the fast-casual space, but also the first to scale it to incredible proportions: He currently operates fast-casual concepts in more than a dozen airports across the country.

Airports aren't only welcoming celebrity chefs, however. "Airports tend to look for local concepts because they want to give people coming in and out of the airport a flavor of the city," Tristano explains. "I think it can be an opportunity to grow. Especially for a smaller guy to be at an airport, it builds your reputation." It’s working for Bayless with Tortas Frontera serving up authentic Mexican fare in three terminals at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

Tristano does warn that there are several factors to consider before opening in a terminal. Airport restaurants can be expensive and difficult to manage. And it's imperative these restaurants have a strong breakfast offering. "If you're a burger restaurant, you better be able to serve breakfast because it's a very heavy day part for the airports."