The long-awaited ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen is scheduled to open in Los Angeles on Monday, the second location systemwide and the first of three West Coast locations planned by parentMexican Grill Inc. this year.
Members of the media were invited for a preview of the restaurant on Wednesday. The unit is located in the heart of Hollywood, not far from the iconic intersection of Sunset and Vine.
ShopHouse debuted in late 2011 in Washington, D.C., and the Denver-based company spent more than a year tweaking the menu and concept. Though the second ShopHouse unit was originally supposed to open in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood, construction delays there allowed the Los Angeles unit to open first.
The ShopHouse in Georgetown, as well as another West Coast location in Santa Monica, Calif., are scheduled to open in July. A third is planned for Los Angeles later this year in Westwood, and the D.C. area will see the addition of three more, for a total of eight units on both coasts by mid 2014.
Company officials say the reaction to the brand so far has been positive. “We are very encouraged by what we are seeing,” said Tim Wildin, Chipotle’s director of concept development, who is a principle in the development of ShopHouse.
Wildin said his mother is Thai and he spent many summers in Bangkok, where traditional shophouses — two- or three-story buildings where families live upstairs and operate restaurants on the ground floor — are known for serving fresh, delicious food to customers on the go.
“This is the food that I grew up with,” said Wildin. “It’s really fresh, vibrant, wholesome and nutritious, but it’s also served in seconds.”
The fast-casual ShopHouse aims to do for Southeast Asian cuisine what Chipotle did for Mexican food. The service model is the same as Chipotle, with guests walking the line to create their meal, and the food is based on sustainable ingredients and prepared in open kitchens.
Steve Ells, founder, chairman and co-chief executive of Chipotle, has long argued that the success of the Mexican brand was not necessarily based on burritos and tacos, but on “a unique system that combines our passion for using great ingredients, classic cooking methods, and an interactive service format that allows customers to pick and choose exactly what they want to eat.”
Breaking down the menu
At ShopHouse, the menu is based on three primary platforms: Guests can select rice (jasmine or brown), chilled rice noodles or salad, then add grilled chicken satay, steak laab, pork and chicken meatballs or organic tofu — the latter the same product used for the new sofritas served in Chipotle units in California, though the tofu is seasoned with Asian spices.
Next, they have the choice of various wok-cooked vegetable dishes, such as green beans with roasted chili jam and shallots or eggplant with Thai basil. Sauces include green curry, spicy red curry or tamarind vinaigrette, and the final dish could be garnished with fresh cilantro, green papaya slaw or picked vegetables, along with toasted rice, crushed peanuts or crispy garlic.
The menu, which is entirely gluten- and dairy-free, is “really concise,” said Wildin. “We just do a few things, but that helps us do them really well.”
Los Angeles was seen as the ideal second market in part because of the availability of strong crew members, Wildin said. “Working at Chipotle is like going to culinary school, the level of skill that’s required is higher than most fast food outlets out there,” he said.
Like Chipotle, all dishes at ShopHouse are made in house, from the red chile curry to the green papaya slaw.
Los Angeles also offers the availability of fresh produce, which Wildin said is one of ShopHouse’s strengths. “It’s amazing the amount of fresh produce we’re giving people here,” he said. “In fast food, I don’t think that happens anywhere else.”
The vegetable options may change with produce in season, he noted. “The eggplant might become Brussels sprouts in winter,” said Wildin.
Chipotle operates more than 1,450 units of its namesake restaurants in North America and Europe, and another 165 to 180 units are scheduled to open this year.
Wall Street analysts are optimistic that ShopHouse will offer the company a new growth vehicle.
Stephen Anderson of Miller Tabak + Co. LLC predicted there is room for 300 to 400 ShopHouse locations in urban areas and college campuses over the next 10 years, pointing to cities like Denver, Chicago and San Francisco as next in line.
Wildin declined to comment on next potential markets, saying Chipotle remains the company’s focus for growth.
“This is an experiment,” said Wildin. “We’re still planting the seeds.”