Fine-dining restaurateurs recounting their development of fast-casual concepts agreed that applying their high-end food and service to a different lifestyle segment is quite the opposite of scaling down or “taking a step back.”
Rather, making a mark in fast casual requires even more investments in time and energy in the supply chain and training of staff, they told NRA Show attendees during the “From Fine to Fast” panel.
“It’s taking the techniques that we learned in the mastering of using the whole animal and utilizing everything and flipping it into a sandwich concept,” Barlow said. “What those techniques have done in limited service is allowed me to use the food that I use at the price points I need.”
Chicago-based restaurateur Rick Bayless joked that he was “dragged kicking and screaming” from his fine-dining restaurants into a growing stable of fast-casual restaurants including Xoco and on-site locations of Tortas Frontera at O’Hare International Airport and two college campuses. But Xoco, which is co-located in the building that houses Bayless’ Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, takes advantage of the ready presence of Bayless’ staff and ingredients and serves more people in a fast-casual format, he said.
One key to making his authentic Mexican recipes work in a faster setting is investing in the training of staff members at Xoco and the on-site Fronteras, he said.
“Where quick-service went wrong is when the people involved in it decided to dumb it down, and then the next thing you know, the staff in quick service doesn’t get any training,” Bayless said. “Bringing all the techniques we know how to do — it’s just cooking. That’s the revolution: bringing cooking back to quick service.”
Panelist Alfredo Sandoval, partner in Chicago-based Mercadito Hospitality Group, brought a different perspective, having scaled the Mercadito fine-dining concept into a chain with locations in New York, Chicago, and soon in Philadelphia and Las Vegas. Yet his company’s next restaurant venture, set to open next month, will be Mercadito Counter, in which many of the brand’s signature Mexican dishes will be ordered at a counter and run to guests sitting in a smaller, fast-casual setting.
“The differences between Mercadito and Mercadito Counter are basically the same, but it’s just different in the way you package it,” Sandoval said. “You do run a higher food cost, for sure, because we charge less and so make a little less, but in terms of what we’re serving it’s the same quality.”
Maintaining high food quality and service at price points workable for fast-casual customers puts the most pressure on the supply chain, the panelists said. Bayless said sourcing his ingredients for O’Hare in Chicago is challenging because every vendor coming to the airport to supply his kitchens must be background checked and cleared. He solved the problem by having one specialty vendor approved by security and having the rest of his farmers and suppliers taking their product to the approved vendor, in order to make one trip.
Barlow said a holdover advantage from his fine-dining career is that he built up his supply chain infrastructure during his time at Tayst. While sourcing a high-volume sandwich shop like Sloco requires him to contract proactively with his farmers well ahead of time, he added, he still can get enough product to pursue the chain’s goal of “being the next Subway” while elevating the ingredient profile.
“In fine dining, you can take your prices up from $32 to $34 for an entrée, and it’s no big deal,” he said. “But I can’t change my prices. Part of our battle is making sure the price still fits.”
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