If you’re a regular reader of QSR, you know that we’re betting on an emerging segment known as fast casual 2.0. With everything from chef-created menus and superior beverage programs to responsibly sourced ingredients and an emphasis on hospitality, these are the players who are taking the lead in limited service and giving casual dining a run for its money.
But trailblazing takes time and money. Big chains have the luxury of attending events like the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show, which are often prohibitively expensive or inaccessible for new or small businesses. Add to that the fact that many opt for corporate growth over franchising, and the fast casual 2.0 scene often finds itself operating in a silo, with many operators isolated from or simply unaware of their peers.
To tear down those barriers and create a space where fast casual 2.0 brands can interact with peer operators, QSR is hosting a series of Fast Casual 2.0 Meet-Ups across the country this year. The first of 2017 was hosted in New York City this past Tuesday (just ahead of the monster snowstorm). New York, arguably the foodie capital of the world, is a hotbed for fast-casual innovation—and a siren call for brands based in other cities.
Take Michael Heyne, cofounder of Austin, Texas–born VERTS, as an example. He moved to New York City to spearhead the brand’s entrance into the fierce market. It might seem like an ill-advised move to hop from Texas to Manhattan, but the VERTS team subscribes to the “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere” mantra. If a young, relatively untested chain can soar in New York, the road ahead looks much smoother. Read more about the brand's rise here.
Joining Heyne at the New York Meet-Up were representatives from nearly 40 brands, including local stalwarts like Luke’s Lobster, Mighty Quinn’s, and ’Wichcraft, as well as upstarts like Mulberry & Vine, Naya Express, and Nom Wah. For those smaller brands, this was an opportunity to meet their peers in a relaxed environment—no elevator pitches, just good drinks, tasty apps, and even better company.
New Orleans native and New York City transplant Leith Hill was one of those attendees who is new to the fast-casual scene. She opened her first location of Ellary’s Greens in the West Village four years ago. Last spring, she reconfigured the full-service, health-forward concept to fit into Columbus Circle’s TurnStyle food hall. Home to more than 30 vendors, the new market occupies a formerly defunct hall of the Columbus Circle subway stop. In opening its second location, Hill had to reconfigure her operation to fit a 600-square-foot space, with the front and back of house divided equally (her full-service restaurant is just shy of 2,000 square feet).
Despite a considerably smaller space, Ellary’s Green’s uptown location still boasts an extensive menu comprised of breakfast offerings, panini, soups, salads, baked goods, smoothies, juices, beer, wine, and cider. And it sounds like the TurnStyle stop won’t be Ellary’s Green’s lone fast-casual location—although Hill says she’d appreciate a slightly bigger footprint for future stores.
As beneficial (and fun!) as it was for those of us on the QSR team to meet with the founders and brand innovators, our hope is that the experience was an even greater boon for the operators themselves. Every industry is competitive in its own way, but the fast casual 2.0 segment has an inherent sense of collective success, wherein one brand’s success does not negate another’s chances.
After all, a rising tide lifts all ships.
Are you a fast casual 2.0 concept in Austin, Los Angeles, or Denver? Our Meet-Up series is coming your way! Email Sam Oches at firstname.lastname@example.org more information.