Fast Casual Nation: Best Of 2016

Fast Casual Nation acts as your guide as to what makes a successful fast casual concept. Always on the go, today’s consumer is looking for high-quality meals — with just as much speed. This year, we got the chance to see some fast casuals that have found their groove within the segment. Here are Foodable's "Best of" episodes for Fast Casual Nation in 2016.

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Spring Chicken

Spring Chicken translates the cuisine of its full-service counterpart, Yard Bird, to a more approachable menu for the fast-casual segment. John Kunkel, CEO of parent company 50 Eggs, explains how they are constantly impressing their customers from serving fresh, quality comfort food to making all their dishes from scratch. Their unique pairing of fresh, minty watermelon and crispy fried chicken has really resonated with their customers.

Marination Ma Kai

A lack of food trucks in Seattle led founders, Roz Edison and Kamala Saxton, to create their own modeled after Roy Choi‘s food truck, Kogi. After only a year-and-a-half on the streets, Ma Kai grew such a following that they decided to open their first brick-and-mortar with the same “Everyday Aloha” motto. Now with five different Marination locations and their original food truck, customers all over Seattle are biting into Hawaiian-Korean fusion dishes, like kimchi fried rice and a spam musubi.

Cava Grill

Cava Grill takes traditional Greek and Mediterranean cuisine and serves it up with a variety of customizable toppings to the modern consumer. The chef-driven fast casual focuses in on community to foster sustainable growth. Creating strong relationships, not only with their consumers but with their producers, Cava Grill has a loyal following. But nothing is more important to the fast-casual champion than their tasty cuisines, such as their spicy lamb meatballs and warm, fresh pitas.

Keep an eye out for all of this year's "Best of" episodes to learn more about which industry professionals changed the game in 2016!

Watermelon Used Year-Round Adds Zest to Spring Chicken

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You'll find watermelon every season at Spring Chicken, the fast casual baby sister of successful South Beach and Vegas concept Yardbird. Created by the 50 Eggs Group and visionary restaurateur John Kunkel, it's no surprise that this restaurant has found quick success and already boasts a loyal brand following. In this episode of "Fast Casual Nation," brought to you by the National Watermelon Promotion Board, we sit down with the brains behind Spring Chicken and discover how the idea for this fast casual hatched up.

The space immediately invites guests in, if its whole wall painted with a sign that says "Welcome Friends" doesn't already spell it out for you. With its unique design — what Kunkel called the industrial version of your grandmother's kitchen — consumers already have something to feast on as soon as they step through the doors Its sleek wood structure mixed with green plants and windmill-esque fans bring the feeling of farm and fresh before the first bite.

While the brand is well-known for its chicken product, the team didn't expect their watermelons to be a fan favorite. While at Yardbird, the fruit wasn't so kid-friendly due to its cayenne and pepper spices, at Spring Chicken, the watermelon is flavored with tones of mint, lemon, and lime.

"We certainly didn't anticipate the popularity of the watermelon. So, funny story. Our first week...I walk in the back door and there was this giant mound of watermelon that was a little bit higher than my head, and I'm like, 'What is going on right now?' They said, 'This is the watermelon.' For when? For today!" Kunkel said.

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Spring Chicken's commitment to its dishes is quite admirable. It's pretty much housemade everything, from the sauce in their mac and cheese, to the produce they chop up, carve, and chunk every day, to the biscuits they bake from scratch. What results are delicious grilled or crispy chicken; colorful, rich, cobb salads with avocado, roasted bacon, and roasted pecans; barbecue sandwiches; veggie or gluten-free sandwiches; chicken and waffles, and more!

"Our culinary staff jokes that we've probably done everything the hard way for a fast casual restaurant," Kunkel said.

While this commitment may seem difficult in terms of scalability as the brand grows, and Kunkel admits there could be efficiencies they could improve on as they expand, he believes that it is possible to merge the fast-food-industry-solution-solving practice with the culinary lens and sensibility of elevated cuisine.

But back to the watermelon. Why does he think this ingredient has a synergy across Spring Chicken's menu?

"With watermelon, it is one of those beyond popular items that seems to complement the crispy, hot, little, spicy fried chicken that we have, and it's just one of those perfect things as we're in the middle of summer in South Florida. I'm sure it's not slowing down any time soon," Kunkel said.

Want to bite into this creative fast casual? Watch the full episode now!

Behind-the-Scenes With Burger Taco Whiskey

Burgers, tacos and whiskey. A trifecta of food love. They also happen to be three of the hottest demands in food & drink right now. But we're not just talking any burger, we're talking better burgers, as in the Better Burger Segment, where ingredients are fresh and top-notch, and burgers are made-to-order. Tacos are also in high demand in Miami -- from Taco Tuesday at your favorite local corner spots to new concepts like Coyo Taco in Wynwood. And whiskey is, well, whiskey. Enough said.

Enter Burger Taco Whiskey, a new(ish) 50 Eggs concept in the 305 that's bringing all of these together and taking fast casual up a notch. From the people who most notably brought us Yardbird, Khong River House and Swine, BTW is upscale-casual.

Brought to you by the Foodable WebTV Network and Avocados From Mexico, we are bringing you behind of scenes of this new concept. 

On this episode of Fast Casual Nation, 50 Eggs Founder John Kunkel & Executive Chef Christian Cuevas show us how concepts innovate around ingredients to create differentiation in the market. Watch the full episode as Kunkel taps into the biggest challenge in this market right now, why this upscale-casual model is great for operators in a tough real estate market, and how to get the most value out of your employees (not to mention the endless food porn!).

Ingredient-Focused Concepts Breed Consumer Loyalty

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On this episode of Fast Casual Nation, brought to you by the Foodable Network and Avocados From Mexico, we are bringing you into Miami’s new upscale-casual concept, Burger Taco Whiskey. Created by 50 Eggs Restaurant Group, with John Kunkel of Lime Fresh Mexican Grill fame at the helm, Burger Taco Whiskey (also known as BTW) shows us how concepts innovate around ingredients to create differentiation in the market. Watch the full episode as Kunkel taps into the biggest challenge in this market right now, why this upscale-casual model is great for operators in a tough real estate market, and how to get the most value out of your employees.

The Main Dish

In the Age of Information Overload, refinement is key. That was the thought behind The Main Dish - a quick compilation of the most bookmark-worthy links from the Foodable WebTV Network. Aside from our usual daily content, The Main Dish will serve a fresh batch of 5-10 handpicked pieces every Sunday from our editor of the most appetizing lists & literature that you may have missed.

Dallas: Introducing Our Newest Foodable City

Spring is Here: The Best Cocktails to Sip This Season

On foodable: Restaurateur John Kunkel on Industry Challenges + the Millennial Shift [video]

Foodie Fight Round Three: Northeast Bloggers Duke it Out

Rock My Restaurant: How to Make the Most of Tabletop Marketing [video]

Melrose Umbrella Company: L.A.’s First Post-Prohibition Bar Opens

Whiskey: Everything You Need to Know About the Spirit in Two Minutes

Table 42: Culina Takes Modern Italian to New Heights [video]

OG on Williams: Jenn Louis of Lincoln Talks Risk + Reinventing the ’Hood [video]

Fast Casual Trends TV: 2014 Fast Casual Trending with Hudson Riehle [video]