“Chef-driven” fast casual trend continues to gain ground

Representing the next step in the category’s evolution, fast casual has attracted the attention of a growing number of well-known professional chefs, with many launching outlets that look to combine the attention and creativity of a fine dining restaurant with a service model closer to that of fast food.

To some degree, this is simply a continuation of the qualities that have made fast casual such a winner in developed markets like the US, namely a quick-service ordering model tied to a higher-quality menu. Yet many of the new chef-driven concepts take this idea of quality a step further, while also trading on the brands established by globally-known chefs like Rick Bayless, Ferran Adria, or Paul Bocuse.

Several such outlets, such as Bayless’ Xoco in Chicago, have opened to long lines and rave reviews, pushing the envelope in terms of the level of quality and creativity possible through a quick-service model. While outlets such as these are still a tiny market niche, with a following largely drawn from urban food enthusiasts, the potential for further expansion is there, as is the ability to influence broader trends in the quick-service category.

Taking fast casual one step further

The phenomenon of chef-driven fast food has largely manifested itself in the US and Western Europe—in the US, examples include the aforementioned Xoco as well as Mario Batali’s Eataly, a New York-based market-restaurant concept, while in Western Europe one can find Ferran Adria’s Fastgood, Paul Bocuse’s Ouest Express, and Marcus Samuelsson’s Street Food, all of which combine fresh ingredients and association with an internationally-recognised chef in a quick-service format.

Several make quite clear the influence of street food, the kind of fresh, fast local delicacies available from independent vendors across the world—Xoco, for instance, makes the torta, a type of sandwich found throughout Mexico, the centrepiece of its menu. Many combine what is basically a quick service ordering model—orders are taken at a register, often from a menu posted overhead, then picked up or brought to the table by servers—with a kitchen setup very similar to that found at a high-end full-service restaurant.

Menus tend to be small, keeping service speed down and quality high, yet are updated regularly, a far easier task in a small, independent operation versus a sprawling multiunit one. Experimentation is common, often combining multiple cuisines in novel ways, with chefs secure in the knowledge many diners are often far more willing to be daring during a US$10-12 quick-service meal versus a US$100+ visit to a fine dining establishment.

The association with street vending is not altogether surprising—in many markets, Asia above all, street vendors are widely recognised as sources of fast, affordable, tasty items, popular among high- and low-income consumers alike.

While standards of quality vary widely, in markets like Singapore certain street vendors and kiosk operators are as widely esteemed for their food as many a fine dining restaurant, the difference coming primarily in service models rather than food quality or chef skill.

This fusion of fast, affordable dining with top-notch skill and creativity has undoubtedly had an influence on chefs the world over (Singapore’s food culture, for instance, above all its hawker centres and food courts, is no secret to those in the global high-end restaurant industry), often directly influencing menu development.

One example of this model is Belly Shack, a restaurant in Chicago’s Logan Square neighbourhood operated by Bill Kim, a former chef at Charlie Trotter’s and Trio, two of the city’s most renowned fine dining restaurants—here, the simple menu includes items such as bulgogi, a popular Korean beef dish, and tostones, fried plantain chips found across Latin America, modern takes on simple items with a no-frills service model that keeps costs (and prices) low.

A potential sea change

For chained quick-service operators, the immediate take on this trend might be curiosity, followed quickly by dismissal—a case of superstar chefs looking to expand their brands, nothing more, and certainly not a competitive threat in any real sense. At the level of individual restaurants, this is likely true—we are unlikely to see, for instance, a franchised version of Xoco working its way across every town in America.

Yet the very fact that successful, established chefs continue to take an interest in quick-service models is indicative of a long-term shift; certainly the success of the broader fast casual category suggests growing demand for high-quality food in a quick-service environment.

If restaurants in the chef-driven fast food subcategory continue to prosper, more are likely to follow, particularly if young chefs begin to look outside of the traditional fine-dining channel as the path to success. Among consumers, particularly young people, the explosion in both internet usage and social networking has vastly increased knowledge of both popular cuisines and hot restaurants, allowing a unique concept to build a following virtually overnight, adding to the appeal of a daring, affordable concept designed to reach food-savvy urban consumers.

This confluence of trends has the potential to completely upend the way we think of quick-service dining—a shift away from markets in which chains account for close to three-quarters of fast food sales as they do in the US and Australia towards a mix closer to that of cafes/bars and full-service restaurants, where a small core of major chains is typically dwarfed by a far larger, and often far more innovative independent sector.

While this scenario is likely at the extreme end of possibilities, it should not be discounted—a world in which the most talented chefs dream of opening both Michelin-starred fine dining restaurants and critically acclaimed fast casual outlets is very from the one which prevailed throughout the twentieth century, and the ramifications are likely only just beginning to be felt.