Full-service restaurants are borrowing one of fast casual’s favorite carriers.

In the face of high labor and rent costs and limited real estate, some full-service concepts are launching limited-service prototypes. But a question remains: How can bowls benefit full service when fast casuals like Chipotle seem to dominate the carrier?

Big Bowl, a six-unit Chinese and Thai concept under Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, has offered a customizable Chef’s Choice Stir Fry Bowl since the brand’s inception.

“It’s allowed us to provide a welcome choice for the health-conscious diner,” says Howard Katz, president of Big Bowl and sister concept, Wildfire. “It’s another avenue for people who like to customize their meals, with choice of rice or noodle, protein, sauce, etc.”

To create the signature stir-fry bowls, Big Bowl’s executive chef paired complementary vegetables and seasonal offerings, Katz says, “while also thinking of flexible customization to meet guests’ dietary requirements and preferences.” These options include a low-carb cauliflower rice base, as well as multiple vegetarian options.

The Chef’s Choice Stir Fry bowl includes snow peas, broccoli, green beans, red onions, baby bok choy, carrots, red peppers, and bean sprouts, but guests select their base (rice or noodles), protein, and sauce, ranging from yellow curry kung pao with peanuts to Shanghai ginger garlic.

Scott Lawton, founder and CEO of NextGen chain Bartaco, says the decision to add bowl options came early in the 24-unit brand’s journey. Bowls offered the opportunity to leverage ingredients the restaurant already had on hand in a fresh format, without needing to source new supply chain materials.

“You can expand your menu without having to expand your order, so you have more effective purchasing and can buy everything in larger quantities,” Lawton says.

During the innovation process, Lawton’s culinary team tried to figure out which kind of tacos made sense in a bowl format. For example, fish and slaw didn’t work, he says, since you don’t want “cold coleslaw on top of hot rice with a long piece of fish in it.” On the other hand, the R&D team discovered that Korean rib-eye with a sweet sesame-soy glaze marinade and spicy kimchi worked great in bowl or taco formats.

In another example of trial and error, Bartaco experimented with serving platters of chicken, steak, fish, and stacks of tortillas on wooden cutting boards.

“But at the same time, that’s not why people were coming to Bartaco. We felt that was diluting what Bartaco was, which is this healthy lifestyle, high-energy escape in a fun brand that’s not a typical Mexican restaurant,” Lawton says. “We thought a bowl of brown rice with proteins and veggies on top very much feeds into that bold, healthy lifestyle that we were trying to capture.”

Bartaco serves signature bowls, including spiced chicken verde with a chile and herb marinade, ancho-crusted ahi tuna with Asian slaw, herb-marinated and roasted wild mushrooms with roasted poblano chile sauce and queso fresco, and roasted duck with a tamarind glaze.

Lawton credits bowls for helping elevate the Bartaco menu, and he estimates such sales account for about 15–20 percent of overall business. “It gives the menu a sense of having more options, looks a little more full, and gives people more choices,” he says.

Like many restaurants, Bartaco heavily relied on takeout and delivery during the pandemic, but taco transport posed a problem—namely, they wilted from crunchy to soggy. To combat this issue and uphold brand quality standards, Bartaco would only deliver deconstructed taco kits in bento-style boxes. That was also where the benefit of bowls became especially apparent.

“A bowl will hold up better than a taco in delivery,” Lawton says. “If I’m ordering from anywhere else that’s not doing what we’re doing, I tend to get a bowl over a crispy taco, because I know it’s going to be soggy by the time we get it.”

True Food Kitchens added bowls to the menu for the first time in 2017 when the brand noticed the carrier gaining popularity. “We wanted to get ahead of the curve,” says Jon Augustin, vice president of food and beverage at True Food Kitchen.

Now, bowls make up about 20–25 percent of the restaurant’s total menu mix, and the Ancient Grains Bowl and Teriyaki Quinoa Bowl are the top-sellers. The former features a mix of brown rice, farro, and quinoa cooked with garlic, ginger, turmeric, and lemongrass, plus grilled portobello mushrooms, charred onions, snap peas, miso-glazed sweet potatoes topped with sesame seeds, sliced avocado, cilantro pesto, and garnished with hemp seeds. (One of the other benefits of bowls is the chance to fill it up with a myriad of creative ingredients.)

“We tested several different bowl options and landed on offerings that were a mix of flavors, textures, and spices,” Augustin says. “A few of our bowls are on the spicier side—Spicy Panang Curry and Korean Noodle Bowl—while the Ancient Grains and Teriyaki Quinoa Bowl include more grains and vegetables to keep you full and satisfied.”

As a 46-unit health food concept with the goal to infuse meals with nutrient-dense ingredients, bowls also offer True Food Kitchen the opportunity to add mindfully sourced protein options such as grass-fed steak, shrimp, grilled chicken, or tofu, Augustin says.

“Bowls are a dish that people love because of the ability to include so many different ingredients, textures, and flavors in one dish,” he adds.

Consumer Trends, Feature, Menu Innovations