Chipotle Mexican Grill’s “Shophouse” Concept Illustrates Continuing Evolution of Asian Fast Food

Looking to build upon the remarkable success of its Mexican fast casual concept, US chain Chipotle Mexican Grill has announced the launch of ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, combining the chain’s existing service model to the cuisine of Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

The move represents one more step in the development of Asian fast food in the US, as consumer tastes expand beyond Chinese and Japanese favourites to include a much wider range of cuisines from around the region. Fusion and complexity have become key concepts, as consumers look for new flavour combinations and dishes that draw from a range of cuisines for inspiration.

A bold move

While the name “ShopHouse” first surfaced in a trademark filing made by the company several months ago, it was only confirmed by company officials last week. The concept’s menu was described in a press release as one that would “pair the bold and complex flavors of southeast Asia with fresh, sustainably raised ingredients; grilled and braised meats, a variety of fresh vegetables, aromatic herbs, spicy sauces, and an array of garnishes.” The name is a reference to the shophouse, a building style common in Southeast Asia, essentially a two- or three-story building with family dwellings on the upper floors and restaurants or markets on the ground level.

It is the fusion aspect of Malaysian and other southeast Asian cuisines which is most likely to drive awareness and adoption among US consumers, given current trends. A number of recent concepts have appeared in the US in recent years which unabashedly combine elements of multiple cuisines, most notably the Kogi Korean BBQ concept that combines the flavours of Korean cuisine with Mexican tacos, offering a new twist on two well-known cuisines, securing rave reviews in the process. The fact that large numbers of urban consumers are already highly familiar with several Thai and Indian dishes could prove auspicious for ShopHouse—as noted, Malaysian cuisine features a number of elements common to both Thai and Indian cuisine while adding new flavour profiles which could prove attractive to urban food enthusiasts looking for the next new trend.

No guarantees

All that said, Chipotle Mexican Grill is not the first company to attempt to introduce Americans to the flavours of southeast Asia. Bengal Coast, a mid-priced full-service restaurant chain in the mould of PF Chang’s, debuted to considerable fanfare in 2008 with a menu combining Indian, Malaysian, Thai, and Indonesian dishes, all in an upscale yet-affordable setting. Despite positive early publicity, the would-be chain’s only outlet in Dallas, Texas closed in 2010, with company officials citing both a difficult economy and limited traction among local diners. While successful independent operations can be found in major urban areas such as Chicago or New York, ShopHouse remains a pioneer in terms of presenting southeast Asian cuisine in a chained, fast casual setting.

None of this is meant to suggest that Chipotle’s new venture is doomed—few Americans had even heard of the term “chipotle” prior to the Mexican chain’s debut, while few fast food chains placed as much emphasis on the quality of their supply chain, or charged a premium price for burritos, yet Chipotle Mexican Grill now stands as one of the preeminent fast casual chains in the US.

The mere fact that Chipotle Mexican Grill is attempting an Asian concept has a number of implications for US market players. The first is the continuing growth of Asian fast food, particularly fast casual concepts—sales of Asian fast food expanded by 4% in 2010, according to Euromonitor estimates, a strong performance in a year when many sectors had only just begun to dig out from the recession year of 2009, and a strong indication of growing demand for Asian flavours which have become increasingly mainstream among American consumers. At the same time, ShopHouse has a real chance of tapping into strong and growing demand for new flavours and new experiences—while spicy flavour profiles have been growing in popularity for years in the US, the kind of complex, spicy-sour and spicy-sweet flavours which typify southeast Asian cuisine are still relatively new to many consumers, yet likely to grow in popularity, as increasingly sophisticated consumers branch out from Mexican and Chinese food to Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, and other cuisines which build and expand upon the bold/spicy template. What’s more, the simple, easy-to-comprehend menus found at Chipotle Mexican Grill outlets could prove quite useful in an Asian context, helping to demystify the ordering process for consumers who might find a typical full-service restaurant experience intimidating.