When quality fast-casual dining first took hold, experts debated its longevity, but diners always have the final say. Through their purchases, social media postings, and in the choices they continue to make, they have proclaimed fast-casual is here to stay.
The uptick in patronage of socially conscious cuisine also lends itself to this audience, who deeply care whether that burrito is stuffed with free-range or confined chicken. But the popularity of fast-casual remains tied to that which eludes us all: time. Chefs and restaurateurs who can source fine ingredients and concoct something delicious in a jiffy are the ones who remain busy.
Celebrity chef and restaurateur at Prova Pizzabar, Donatella Arpaia is known for her expert palate judging dishes on TV’s Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef. She could have opened any restaurant anywhere, but chose to bring pizza to the people, opening Prova Pizzabar in Grand Central Station and shattering the myth that gourmet pizza means a long wait. Even though she designed her next-generation, traditional Neapolitan pizza using the highest water content, longest proofing process and authentic Italian ingredients, her pizza is readily available for quick service.
Arpaia wanted something more though, and designed a space to give diners the added option of hanging out in gorgeous digs. It’s the diner who makes the choice to either get in and out fast, or luxuriate over cocktails.
Arpaia explains why so many upscale dining chefs are including fast-casual restaurants in plans for expansion.
“I felt there was a need for high quality artisanal pizza in a fast-paced environment and I was ready to embark on a new challenge,” says Arpaia, who is excited to open multiple locations across the country. “My team and I created a unique and exceptional product and it’s been a huge hit from day one, exceeding expectations because it is light and highly digestible, but, most importantly, delicious.”
The question of whether fast-casual restaurants will continue to prove successful among customers is on any chef’s mind before opening. Arpaia credits a more today’s more educated customer with ensuring a profitable fast-casual future.
“These customers are more demanding and have come to expect higher quality food in fast-casual environments, so this trend is going to continue and grow,” says Arpaia, who sees owning an upscale quick-service spot as making her more accessible and approachable – she loves to meet her fans in person over their mutual shared love of pizza. “Consistency, quality and commitment to your brand and to customer service holds true for fine dining and for fast-casual dining.”
Millennials are one major reason these restaurants are still trending.
“Millennials love fast-casual and they are a growing group within the hospitality world,” says Michael Schulson, CEO and founder of restaurant group Schulson Collective, who also recognizes how the shrinking lunch hour is driving people to fast-casual. “People are also eating out more than ever so they need more options, especially during the day when fewer people have extended time to dine out for lunch.”
The proof is in the sushi. Diners are embracing DK Sushi, Schulson’s new fast-casual restaurant inspired by his sushi bar and izakaya, Double Knot. DK Sushi is in the remodeled food hall at the University of Pennsylvania and one of 10 others nationwide in the Schulson Collective portfolio from the Philadelphia-based restaurateur. For the quick-service concept, chef Kevin Yanaga crafts à la carte items and signature sushi sets, and guests make selections from touch-screen kiosks. The result is an upscale sushi meal without the long wait or formal surroundings.
“The guests love DK Sushi because it’s a way for guests to experience my restaurant Double Knot, but on a smaller scale,” he says. “We use the same high quality fish but it is just less formal at DK Sushi.”
Why do so many great chefs with upscale dining seek the fast-casual solution? The answer is in brick-and-mortars.
“Fast-casual allows us to build something more substantial, as you can open many restaurants with the same brand, while a free-standing restaurant can only have one, maybe two, locations in each city,” says Schulson, while acknowledging that longevity is dependent on making each a great experience for diners. “A fast-casual concept can have multiple locations within a city, but in the end, it is still the same, as a restaurant and its design, food, value, service and hospitality are important.”