Fast Casual Concepts Begin in the Beltway But Expand Elsewhere

By Ross Perkins, Foodable Contributor

Ingredients from sweetgreen | Foodable WebTV Network

Ingredients from sweetgreen | Foodable WebTV Network

The days of fast casual only being Chipotle are long gone. Take your pick of a cuisine and chances are some company somewhere is already on it. Pan-Asian? There’s ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen. Salads and healthy vegetarian-friendly fare? sweetgreen has that one covered. Greek and Mediterranean? Cava Grill will handle that one. All of these brands take their cues from Chipotle Mexican Grill – customers order at the counter and as they move from station to station to build their meals until they check out. And another thing: All these fast casual concepts got their start in Washington, DC.

The nation’s capital is a prime place to test out new fast casual concepts because the demographics could not be more ideal. The city has been and continues to be one of the largest destinations for the coveted millennial demographic, and there are many downtown office workers who need lunches made quickly. The city has an affluent population, so spending $10 or more for lunch is not a big deal. And Washington, DC is home to not only many international organizations but also a large international population who are familiar with different food cultures. So bringing something new to the dining scene is often embraced.

Noodles, Salads, and Falafel – Fast Casual Has It Handled

From the company that brought consumers Chipotle Mexican Grill, which pretty much put the fast casual concept on the map, comes its pan-Asian concept ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen. ShopHouse is set up just like its sister company and aside from the menu could make customers believe they are at Chipotle – customers approach the counter and piece together their meals using the limited menu provided. The first ShopHouse to open was in 2011 in the Dupont neighborhood followed by a Georgetown location that was close college kids and hungry M Street shoppers– both of which are lucrative markets. Once the concept had its test run in DC, it was time to test it out in another market. ShopHouse made the jump to the West Coast and opened in West Hollywood. This was followed in quick succession with other locations in the Los Angeles and Washington, DC metro areas, but no word yet on when the brand will land in other markets.

Sweetgreen is a home-grown company founded in 2007 by three Georgetown University students – Nathaniel Ru, Nicolas Jammet, and Jonathan Neman. Inspired by the fresh cuisine from California, these guys were looking for a healthy alternative to many of the food options they found in the neighborhood. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. So he teamed up with his partners to launch sweetgreen, which has not only more than 10 locations within DC proper but also has locations in Philadelphia, Manhattan, and Boston. But they haven’t made it to the state that inspired them yet.

Salad from Cava Grill | Foodable WebTV Network

Salad from Cava Grill | Foodable WebTV Network

And finally, Cava Grill is fast casual Greek and Mediterranean restaurant with locations throughout the region. Considered the “Chipotle” of Greek food, its flavors and ingredients seem to have struck a chord with diners since it continues to expand at a rapid clip. Last month, Cava Grill opened yet another location in DC’s Chinatown neighborhood and will soon open another location at the airport and continue the local dining in airports trend. A recent Washington Post article highlighted how Cava Grill is hoping to double by summer 2015. For the time being, Cava Grill is doing well in DC, so it will only be a matter of time before the brand moves beyond the Beltway.

Where These Fast Casual Businesses Are Going (Or Not Going)

Just like with any trend, it takes time for these fast casual brands to trickle down to smaller markets. Chipotle Mexican Grill, arguably the brand that made “fast-casual” part of the everyday lexicon and the most popular fast casual restaurant, is still missing from many markets. Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Hawaii, and Alaska do not have any Chipotles within their boundaries. And Chipotle has been around – in one form or another – since 1993. So for newer concepts, it will be years before sweetgreen, Cava Grill, and ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen will enter smaller cities and towns. But for consumers living in larger markets, don’t be surprised if one of these DC-based businesses opens up around the corner.