Consumers crave good food, good prices, and convenience. Restaurateurs have been trying for years to make pasta fast-casual eateries take off in the same way pizza and Tex-Mex have. Unfortunately, they’ve been fighting an uphill battle.
Some argue fast-casual pasta can’t work because consumers view the dish as a family meal. The same argument could be equally true about fast-casual pizza since it is traditionally shared, but that didn’t stop fast-casual pizzerias from succeeding.
Others may say fast-casual pizza works because pizza is infinitely customizable. However, pasta is limitless in the types of noodles and sauces it can feature, plus pasta can travel for takeout and delivery just as well, if not better, than pizza.
But operators willing to stay the course and experiment with different menus and cooking methods can find success with fast-casual pasta.
“In the beginning, Grassa was met with a bit of confusion; people weren’t sure why we weren’t taking orders at the table,” says Rick Gencarelli, chef and owner of Grassa. The Portland, Oregon, concept first opened in 2013, expanded to a second store in 2016, and recently signed the lease on a third location.
The brains behind Dio Mio turned to a friend in the ramen space for advice when opening its fast-casual pasta restaurant in Denver. “The cook times are so quick at a ramen shop that the customer doesn’t seem to notice,” says Alexander Figura, co-chef and owner of Dio Mio. “So, we tried to apply the same method at Dio Mio.”
Preparation, balance and quality are key when entering into a fast casual pasta project. Here are tips for making one work.
1. Keep the menu simple and balanced. A fast-casual pasta menu needs to have more pasta than a traditional Italian restaurant, but not so much that the chef—or customers—are overwhelmed.
“All of our pastas can be made from start to finish in less than 10 minutes,” Figura says. “We have two chefs and offer seven different pastas, with one or two being baked pastas that can be finished in the oven.”
Figura admits that he and his business partner tried to do too much in the beginning. “We had to figure out a way to balance the menu and start outsourcing to get the right product instead of making things like mozzarella and burrata. Honestly, you just have to put your ego aside,” he says.
2. Don’t fight the pasta extruder. It can be hard for chefs coming from a fine-dining background to accept that they need a pasta extruder to keep up with production, but it can be essential to a business’s growth. “The workhorse of the whole concept is the extruder,” Gencarelli says. “We can produce large quantities of extruded semolina pasta instead of buying it.”
“In the beginning, coming from fine dining, we did everything by hand, and it just didn’t make sense labor-wise, especially for a fast casual,” Figura says. “A year later we were able to buy an extruder.”
3. Offer high-end options at affordable prices. Customers expect lower prices from a fast casual, but they also have high expectations from a restaurant that serves pasta.
At Grassa, guests choose between 10 pastas with prices ranging from $8 to $16. “Our goal at Grassa was to be the middle ground between the two spectrums of high-end and inexpensive pasta options,” Gencarelli says. “We didn’t want anyone to sacrifice their sensibilities; everyone is happy.”
Menu highlights at Grassa include rigatoni with Sunday pork ragu; squid ink chittara with Manila clams, Calabrian chili, pancetta, garlic, lemon and breadcrumbs; and cacio e pepe with truffle butter, salt, cracked pepper, and grana. “We have a little more wiggle room to add nicer ingredients because we’ve removed a lot of labor costs and the cost of pasta is so low,” Gencarelli says. “The cost for five ounces of extruded pasta starts around 11 cents.”
4. Keep pasta and sauces ready. Time is everything in a limited-service kitchen; the more you can have ready ahead of time, the more prepared you’ll be to meet order delivery times.
“We make pasta fresh and then immediately put it into the freezer, so it doesn’t dry out,” Figura says. “All of our pasta comes out of the freezer and cooks in less than five minutes; in a traditional ramen shop, the noodles cook in two to three minutes.” Figura says he’s accepted that there are some pasta shapes they cannot offer, such as bucatini, because it takes too long to cook. “We had to focus on shape as well as keeping things fresh,” he says.
“We make batches of pasta every day. One person comes in at 7 a.m. and makes the pasta in batches, weighing and portioning it so it’s always super fresh,” Gencarelli says. “We also make egg-dough pasta, which lets us vary the menu more.”
Sauces at Dio Mio are also made throughout the day, not to order. “When the sauce is already made, we can grab the designated amount, toss it with the pasta and add any additional acid, cheese or herbs,” Figura says.
5. Let customers watch. Today’s consumers love an experience, especially one they can share on social media. Fast-casual pasta operators make pasta in front of their guests so they have the opportunity to get that all-important Instagram shot. Grassa will make pasta in front of a window that faces the street in its third location, Gencarelli says.
6. Give them what they expect from an Italian restaurant. Customers still want to feel like they’re eating pasta in their favorite Italian restaurant, so offer them a familiar atmosphere and accompaniments. Beer, wine, and cocktails are available at Grassa and Dio Mio, with happy hour specials Monday through Friday at Dio Mio.
And while Dio Mio is known for its casually romantic atmosphere, Grassa has a trendier vibe. “We play cool music and offer delicious wine on tap, cool cocktails and beers,” Gencarelli says.
7. Obsess over food cost, quality, and consistency. Knowing the numbers will help any restaurant grow, including a fast casual. “I’ve learned a lot about portion control, weighing stuff out and keeping the right scoops on the line. Ten years ago, I would have laughed at all of that because it sounds so corporate and terrible, but that’s where the good stuff is,” Gencarelli says. “Really turning this into a business, scaling it up and watching it grow into our third location is super exciting.”
Fast Casual Pasta Restaurant to Watch
- Biga, San Diego
- Dio Mio, Denver
- Due Cucina Italiana, Seattle
- Grassa, Portland, Oregon
- Pasta Sisters, Los Angeles
- Piada, Columbus, Ohio