Approaching 400,000 views, “Fast Casual Nation,” a Web documentary series that highlights innovative concepts and restaurants in the fast-casual segment, is wrapping up its first, 10-episode season. Host Paul Barron, who was first to identify the restaurant segment with his launch of FastCasual.com in the mid 1990s, has traveled to cities interviewing personalities in this quickly growing sector. We’re giving you a behind-the-scenes look into what makes these brands fast-casual innovators.
Taking a standard concept and turning it into something more cutting edge is something Josh Spiegelman and Lynn Gorfinkle, owners of Roam Artisan Burgers in San Francisco, do very well. Roam offers sustainable patties, including 100% grass-fed beef, elk, bison and venison. Though the restaurant offers customization, the menu includes signature combinations, such as Sunny Side, a burger topped with an organic egg, and French and Fries, which is topped with truffle Parmesan fries. Roam makes its own soda and milkshakes: Salted caramel, mint chip and seasonal flavors such as Mexican chocolate are customer favorites. Milkshakes are topped with a brûléed marshmallow. If you’re looking for more of an adult beverage, Roam has wine on tap.
Two other burger concepts we visited are Smashburger and BurgerFi, where we kicked off Season 1. In Denver, we sat down with Smashburger founder and Chief Concept Officer Tom Ryan and CEO David Prokupek to give us Smashburger 101. Ryan took us through the process of what makes the restaurant’s burgers so tasty. Another cool thing? Whenever Smashburger expands to another city, the team researches what residents like to eat and tries to incorporate it into the menu, perhaps as a side dish or topping. BurgerFi is a burger-beer concept that prides itself on eco-friendliness. Aside from burgers being antibiotic-free, all-natural beef, tables are made from recycled metal and wood, and chairs are made from powder-coated, recycled Coca-Cola bottles. You won’t find a freezer in this fresh, made-to-order establishment, but it will always brand your bun with a “BurgerFi” signature.
Salsa Fiesta, our Episode 6 location, also is eco-friendly. It’s trendy fresh Mex meets Latin fusion. The brunch lineup includes huevos rancheros, Mexican scrambled eggs and tons more. Fun fact: CEO Cesar Olivo started the brand in Venezuela, where it’s a quickservice restaurant. Olivo decided to go fast casual in the U.S. because of the segment’s success.
In Dallas, corporate chef John Franke is giving fresh Mex a seasonal, farm-to-table twist at Velvet Taco. The only thing tacolike, however, is the tortilla. Want an Indian dish? What about fried calamari, fried oysters or a lobster roll? No need to worry: Velvet Taco offers all of those cuisines, and more, in a taco. It’s all about local sourcing, cool ingredients and upscale tacos — at a very reasonable price, of course. Everything on the menu is less than $7.
A fresh-market spin
In Boulder, Colo., we met up with Anthony Pigliacampo, co-founder of Modmarket, a concept that was created with the mentality of “How do you feed people the food they should be eating with the food they want to be eating?” Menu items have big flavor, but they are all healthy, with proof on each customer receipt, which lists nutrition facts for what was consumed. Food is locally sourced, and the menu changes often. To keep up, Modmarket’s menu is digital, making it easy to replace items. The decor is architecturally savvy, modern and minimal — more Apple than Applebee’s.
In Episode 2, we headed to The Cheese Course, a South Florida cheese and wine haven — with a full, fresh salad and sandwich menu to boot — that houses 150 varieties of cheese worldwide. This interactive restaurant features a cheese of the day, a tasting station and a cheese monger on hand in case you want to be educated about regions and flavors.
La Madeleine Country French Cafe‘s cozy ambiance and tasty menu are drivers of its consumer experience, but it’s the brand’s flexibility to evolve with consumers — while staying true to its brand DNA — that gives this restaurant its success of longevity.
Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill understands the key of flexibility as well. This Mediterranean concept, one of few in fast casual, is about customization and quick, fresh options.
Stay tuned for our next and final stop in Season 1, Sushi Maki. Season 2 will kick off in March.
Jessica Bryant is a digital brand analyst for DigitalCoCo and leads research for the Social Insights platform. DigitalCoCo is the leading firm for social consumer research and digital brand development for the restaurant and hospitality business. Bryant is a seasoned researcher with a specialty toward consumer trends and culture shifts in the restaurant business.