5 Fast-Casual Stars Shaping the Segment Today

Grilled Octopus Salad at Tender Greens (Santa Monica location)  | Foodable WebTV Network

Grilled Octopus Salad at Tender Greens (Santa Monica location) | Foodable WebTV Network

Vanguards in the restaurant space, who are essentially changing the way we eat and think about food, have more than a few things in common. Perhaps the most important though, is their ability to see the bigger picture — having a purpose that resonates far beyond the four walls of a restaurant. This ethos has become more apparent in the fast-casual space, a restaurant segment that aligns with the lifestyle of the modern-day consumer and especially millennials.

Foodable consulted with five fast-casual stars who are helping to shape the segment today. What has fast-casual evolved into, and where is it going? What will New Age consumers want and what trends are on the horizon?

“Consumers want to know more information about everything but they don't want to be advertised to,” says Erik Oberholtzer, co-founder at Tender Greens. “It has to be authentic.”

Tender Greens is what some would call fast-casual 2.0, or “fine casual.” The Southern-California-based concept, created by fine-dine chefs, prides itself on chef-driven, sustainable offerings.

“We do what we do because that’s the type of food we want to eat every day, it’s how we cook as chefs,” says Oberholtzer. “We didn’t set out to create Tender Greens because being eco-conscious, organic or sustainable was trending or buzz-worthy. We simply did it because we felt that it’s the right thing to do.”

Purpose, Passion, People

Owning a restaurant is not for the weak of heart. Being driven by a sense of purpose and passion is crucial, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s helping the bottom line.

“I think consumers are gravitating more than ever toward businesses that know why they exist, not just what they do,” says Mario Del Pero, CEO and founder at Mendocino Farms. “What we do is sell sandwiches and salads, but we exist to make sure our guests ‘Eat Happy.’ We believe our purpose is to build restaurants that function as gathering places for the community, and from there we’re able to build deep, long-term relationships with our guests.”

Hospitality goes a long way. The Mendocino Farms team, according to Del Pero, view guests as “neighbors, not customers.”

This sentiment of community and relationship building often goes beyond guests, and starts at the core. Chicago’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken invests in their team and puts emphasis in hiring people who not only love food and good service, but who want to be part of a workplace that values each person’s input and time.

“The industry has made great strides in improving the quality of ingredients used, from better sourced vegetables to more humanely raised and processed meats,” says Joshua Kulp, executive chef and managing partner at Honey Butter Fried Chicken. “I think extending that improvement to our most valuable asset — our employees — is really going to be crucial to the future of fast-casual restaurants.”

Filling a Void

Just as the fast-casual segment has filled a void in the restaurant industry — giving diners a choice beyond pricier, occasion-based restaurants and guilt-ridden fast food — many successful concepts were created to fill a gap.

No stranger to the fast-casual space, Matt Andrew, former president and co-founder at Moe’s Southwest Grill, found big opportunity after realizing no one was offering fast-casual pizza. In 2008, Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint was born. Today, the fast-casual pizza space is booming.

Uncle Maddio's Pizza  | Foodable WebTV Network

Uncle Maddio's Pizza | Foodable WebTV Network

To stand out from the competition, Andrew says, it’s important for Uncle Maddio’s to maintain quality control throughout the whole menu and not just pizza. Though the concept specializes in a deep array of custom, signature-made pizzas, the same extensive depth is also applied to its salads and toasted sandwiches, says Andrew.

Texas-based Cowboy Chicken also focuses on adding originality and value to an American diet staple. The concept serves all-natural, hormone-free rotisserie chicken that’s seasoned in-house with a proprietary seasoning and cooked over an authentic wood-burning fire.

“We’ve been serving honest-to-goodness rotisserie chicken for over 30 years,” says Sean Kennedy, president at Cowboy Chicken. “So we have a lot of loyalty to our brand. Kids have grown up going to Cowboy Chicken and are now bringing their kids to our restaurant, allowing us to serve a whole new generation.”

Though Honey Butter Fried Chicken also showcases this protein front-and-center, the two concepts provide completely different experiences, as they should in a competitive space.

Chef-Driven Concepts & Fine-Casual

While Honey Butter Fried Chicken’s fried chicken topped with honey butter is what the concept is known for, other menu items include kale slaw with cumin yogurt dressing and pomegranate. Like Tender Greens, Honey Butter Fried Chicken is a chef-driven fast-casual started up by Joshua Kulp and Christine Cikowski, both chefs by trade.

“We developed our fried chicken recipe over years at our community dining club, Sunday Dinner Club,” says Kulp. “We brought a chef’s sensibility to the chicken, sides, drinks, and desserts. We really want our customers to notice our food and love it. We try to create dishes that are memorable and just taste better. I know that I take notice when a chef creates a fast-casual restaurant. My sense is that the food will be given a high amount of attention when a chef is involved.”

As more chefs integrate themselves in the fast-casual space, a wave that’s already added higher value perception, what’s to come for chef-driven fast-casual concepts?

Oberholtzer is skeptical of the phrase. “Chef-driven is an interesting term, and it’s something that we’ve used but I feel has lost some of its meaning, and has become more valuable as a marketing term,” says the Tender Greens co-founder. “Like how ‘organic’ doesn’t necessarily mean very much these days. It’s a chef-driven menu, but how many trained chefs are actually in the kitchen making the food?”

Oberholtzer breaks down fast-casual into two subsegments: quick-casual, which is “fast and better for you than traditional fast food,” and fine-casual. “Fine-casual is not quite fast-casual,” says Oberholtzer, “but it's concepts like Tender Greens — fine-dining quality food and point-of-view in an affordable and casual atmosphere. Fine-casual is being driven by chefs like us, who are creating concepts and menus for a much broader audience through service model, price and quality.”

Save Drake Farm's Salad from Mendocino Farms  | Foodable WebTV Network

Save Drake Farm's Salad from Mendocino Farms | Foodable WebTV Network

Transparency & Sustainability

Many brands that fit the bill of this fine-casual category include those sourcing high-quality ingredients and performing sustainable practices.

“From the very beginning, we never chose to call ourselves ‘sustainable sandwiches’ or ‘organic sandwiches,’” says Del Pero of Mendocino Farms. “But our intent was always to seek out deserving local farmers and artisans and use our business as a tool to help our guests support them.”

Because Mendocino Farms does not have a strict criteria of qualifications, they’ve been able to strategically support local partners while keeping prices approachable, says Del Pero.

“The bigger issue that companies like Mendocino Farms need to get in front of is the necessary infrastructure to regularly audit and coach these partners to verify that the values we are sharing with our guests are really living at the farm,” he says. “I know Chipotle has really struggled with this at their size, as we saw from their removing pork from the menu for months. The next billion dollar question is, ‘can we scale sustainability?’”

Tender Greens is also challenging the food system. “We have to go beyond organic,” says Oberholtzer. “Just because chicken or eggs are labeled as ‘free-range’ doesn’t mean that they live their lives outside under the blue sky. We see it as an opportunity to start a conversation with our guests to talk about these issues to ask them questions, and share our point of view. If we can educate our customers about the challenges of our food system, they can help drive demand from producers for better quality all around. Transparency builds trust.”

The Future of QSR-Plus

Fine-casual isn’t the only subsegment looming amidst fast-casual. Realizing a missed opportunity, some QSR brands have begun implementing more premium menu options in order to compete with the fast-casual group.

This subsegment, as dubbed by Technomic as QSR-Plus, includes brands like Chick-fil-A, Culver’s, El Pollo Loco, Freddy’s, In-N-Out Burger, Pita Pit, and Potbelly Sandwich Shop. But what’s to come of QSR-Plus in the next 24 months, and will it have an effect on fast-casual sales?

Many fast-casual operators think it might. But there are other obstacles QSR-Plus brands must face.

“QSR has long been the ‘sleeping giant’ in the food industry,” says Cowboy Chicken’s Sean Kennedy. “They were behind the eight ball when it came to providing better quality food and service in a contemporary, relevant environment. But recently they have ‘woken up’ to this new generation and are fighting to regain their momentum. The question is whether or not the consumer believes it.”