Former Casual Dining Executives Investing in the Fast Casual Space

By Kerri Adams, Editor-at-Large

Before Pokemon Go, the fast casual movement took the restaurant industry by storm. And the impact of this fresh segment hasn’t been temporary. Ever since the first innovative fast casual concepts came along in the 1990s and started to attract the consumer looking for quality, yet speed in a comfortable and inviting environment– every other segment has had to adapt to the new consumer’s expectations.

The fast casual segment disrupted the industry for the better. Quick-serve concepts are morphing into “QSR-plus” and casual dining concepts are also upping the ante to compete with the emerging fast casual chains.

This segment is still the fastest growing one in the industry. There are so many sectors in this segment still gaining popularity with foodies, including Fresh Mex, better-burger, pizza, Asian fusion, sandwich, etc.

With so much potential for fast casual concepts, it isn’t surprising that casual dining giants and former executives are looking to get in on the action.

Let’s take a closer look at the former/current casual dining kings and queens dominating the fast casual space.

Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso’s Fast Casual 2.0 Venture: Hopdoddy Burger Bar

Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso | Wes Johnson/The Arizona Republic

Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso | Wes Johnson/The Arizona Republic

Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso are no amateurs to the restaurant industry. Prior to being two of the four founders of the fast casual concept, Hopdoddy Burger Bar, Foles and Villavaso started two Austin chains Eddie V’s and Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill. The fine-dining and casual dining chains were eventually sold to the casual dining giant Darden Restaurants Inc in 2011.

Foles and Villavaso had a new focus starting in 2010 when they opened the first Hopdoddy store in Austin. The fast casual’s name pays homage to the hops in its craft beer program and its burger meat. Doddy is a Scottish term for cows.

The better-burger fast casual chain has 15 stores today in Texas, California, Colorado and Arizona. Like most better-burger chains, the burgers are made with fresh, all-natural ingredients with meat from humanely raised cows, never given growth hormones or antibiotics. The restaurant also offers fries as a side, shakes as a treat and even salads.

Besides offering salad options, this burger joint is different than the many others in the gourmet burger fast casual category in a few ways. One, it offers a different service model. It’s a mixture between fast casual and full-service. The customer is offered beverages while waiting for a table. But once the customer is seated, they then make their order with a server and in 9 minutes or less later their meals are delivered to the table.

With a unique selection of craft beer, the concept also offers other alcoholic beverages with a full cocktail menu.

The average bill is around $14-$15 for the entire meal, including a beverage.

This enhanced fast casual format offers the speed and price found in fast casual and the service and quality found in casual dining. It offers consumers the best of both worlds.

While Foles and Villavso seem to be focusing their efforts in fast casual, they aren’t only sticking to this segment. Earlier this year, they announced they would be teaming up with former executive chef, John Carver of Eddie V’s to open the high-end Italian eatery, Red Ash in downtown Austin.

Buffalo Wild Wings Wants a Piece of the Fast Casual Pie

Instead of developing its own fast casual concept like P.F. Changs did with Pei Wei, the casual dining giant Buffalo Wild Wings decided to invest in two already established fast casual concepts–PizzaRev and R Taco.

❤️ pizza from my head to-ma-toes 🍅 #OrganicRedSauce #Tomatoes #PizzaRev

A video posted by PizzaRev (@pizzarev) on

In 2013, BWW invested in PizzaRev, a restaurant chain with over 200 stores gaining some major momentum in the build-your-own pizza fast casual sector. “Over the past year, Buffalo Wild Wings has been investigating emerging restaurant concepts with high growth potential as we continue to build our dynamic company,” said Kathy Benning, Buffalo Wild Wings' executive vice president, chief strategy officer and new business development in a press release. “Along with chicken wings, pizza is one of America’s most popular foods and we believe that PizzaRev has great potential for continued growth and success.”

Fast forward to 2016, PizzaRev’s restaurant visits are up 3.49% in the second quarter of 2016 with an increase in location-based actions according to RSMI data.

The brand didn’t stop at fast casual pizza either. Back in 2014, BWW made another major investment in the Rusty Taco (now known as R Taco,) a Texas-based fast casual known for its street tacos with 14 stores in Texas, Colorado and Minneapolis.

"Rusty Taco's fresh approach to tacos truly sets this concept apart," said Kathy Benning, Buffalo Wild Wings' executive vice president, chief strategy officer and new business development in a press release. "Buffalo Wild Wings' investment is part of our strategy to partner with emerging restaurant concepts that have the potential for significant growth, can work throughout the country and have a highly engaged management team with a passion to grow the business."

Melting Pot’s Owners Start the Fast Casual Burger 21

Bringing families together one burger, hotdog, or chicken tender basket at a time. #FamilyFunMonth

A photo posted by Burger 21 (@myburger21) on

The founders of the elevated casual dining restaurant, The Melting Pot ventured into the fast casual segment in 2009 when they launched the gourmet burger concept, Burger 21. Their goal is to corner the market of consumers looking for unique interpretations of the beloved burger.

“Since the dawn of what’s been called the “Era of Upscale Burgers” in 2001, chefs in America had been elevating the burger and creating unique culinary interpretations, resulting in more refined and demanding palates among burger-loving consumers. Working with the team at our restaurant management company Front Burner Brands, President and Chief Concept Officer Mark Johnston and his wife, Concept Development Director Arlene Johnston, had a strong desire to create a restaurant that would stand out as a unique concept and satisfy those palates,” according to the Burger 21’s website.

The restaurant offers innovative burgers with different proteins than the traditional beef one including the Ahi Tuna and the Chicken Parmesan. The better-burger concept has 24 open stores in Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and New Jersey, with three new stores opening soon.

These are just some of the few former casual dining moguls gravitating to the fan-favorite fast casual segment. As the fast casual sector continues to dominate the industry, we anticipate more operators in the quick-serve, casual dining and fine dining sectors to make a transition to either fast casual or fast casual 2.0 concepts.