Picnik CEO Dan Mesches describes the NextGen Casual concept in five words: real food and good vibes.
In lieu of refined sugar, gluten, seed oil, soy, corn, and peanuts, the menu favors pressed avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, and MCT oil; pasteurized meat and eggs; Himalayan sea salt; organic tofu; butter from grass-fed cows; and raw honey. One may come in with friends and start with the Mediterranean Dip Trio, comprising pesto hummus, tzatziki, labneh, hot honey, chile, sunflower seed, crudités, and chips. The entrée lineup includes salads, bowls, sandwiches, tacos, and market plates, like the Wagyu Caponata—grass-fed skirt, feta, summer squash, spiced tomato caper, onion, golden raisin, and Italian salsa verde.
The beverage menu is just as diverse, with signature cocktails like the Pitaya Margarita (blanco tequila, dragonfruit, lime, and raw honey), low ABV and zero-proof drinks, cider, hard kombucha, beer, sustainable wine, tea, and butter coffee. Customers are able to add a handful of wellness ingredients, including collagen, lion’s mane (a species of mushroom), and adaptogen protein.
“We wanted to make food that is inclusive for everyone no matter what, whether you have a special diet or you’re just going out to eat and want to have a healthy comforting food,” Mesches says. “Through that, we are very mindful in sourcing. You find a lot of your favorites—things that everyone likes to eat but may have a problem with diet-wise. Or you’re so used to having some healthy foods that are not always thought of as tasty, and we bridge that gap. We’re both.”
Picnik was founded by Naomi Seifter nine years ago in Austin, Texas, as a food trailer renovated from a shipping container. Seifter opened the concept to offer more choices for customers like herself who deal with allergies and issues related to food and gut stress. She found a diet that worked for her, which began with butter coffee and grew from there.
In 2016, the first brick-and-mortar restaurant opened, followed by a second one this summer. Another location—and the first outside of Austin—is expected in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood in the first quarter of 2023, which, including the trailer, will bring its unit count to four.
Seifter served as CEO until 2019, when the company brought on Andy Malloy—former leader of better-for-you snack brand Hail Merry—to oversee the CPG segment. Incorporated as Artisanal Blue Northern Foods, the Picnik product line, which includes a variety of healthful creamers, is available at Whole Foods, Sprouts, and other grocery retailers nationwide.
Mesches, who previously served as CEO of Hopdoddy Burger Bar, operates the restaurant side of Picnik’s restaurant business. A few years ago, the concept received a $7.5 million investment from private equity firm KarpReilly, which also has its hands in Sprinkles Cupcakes and emerging chicken fast casual Starbird; Mesches also serves as CEO for the former brand.
Picnik’s demographic is far-reaching, encompassing college students, young families, and retirees. The largest subset is women aged 25 to 35. Restaurants are light, with bright colors, wood tones, and polished concrete floors, and Mesches says the environment is made for both the casual launch and the fancier date night. The original location, based on the north side of Austin, is a second-generation space around 3,500 square feet.
The second restaurant, also 3,500 square feet, sits at the bottom level of a new condo development in South Austin, and includes a more coherent dining room layout, an open kitchen, pink and turquoise tiles, colorful light fixtures, and murals of Texas landscapes from a local artist. For on-the-go customers there’s a walk-up coffee bar—similar to the chain’s first trailer—and plenty of outdoor patio space. The pedestrian window opens at 8 a.m. while the dining room opens at 11 a.m., or 9 a.m. for weekend brunch.
The most prominent update in the second restaurant is the full-service bar, equipped with a lounge area that stretches alongside the restaurant. Picnik’s beverage program is led by director of operations Tom Moon, who previously spent time at FB Society’s Whiskey Cake and Marriott International. The dining room and bar area, which stays open an hour later, are divided by shelves and greenery.
“If you look at our drink programs, you see things in them like fresh-grated ginger, raw honey, turmeric—all tasting really good,” Mesches says. “In fact, we have canned drinks too at this time. And with the change in law in Texas, you can take those drinks home with you. Our wine list—it’s all sustainable wine. It’s very conscious, mindful eating, and I think that’s our difference from a lot of folks out there.”
The outlet was designed in partnership with HapstakDemetriou, a firm that’s also worked with Cava, &pizza, and Nando’s Peri-Peri.
“People travel to come to Picnik. It’s a special concept,” Mesches says. “Some concepts you’ll put one mile apart or whatever, but with Picnik, people make a big effort to get there, and we really appreciate that from our guests.”
Moving forward, Picnik will look to grow further in Texas, including Fort Worth and Dallas, and outside the Lone Star State, like Nashville, Tennessee, and Denver. All future locations will be 3,500–4,000 square feet and located in concentrated areas; Mesches mentions college campuses as a good fit for the brand. Similar to the second brick-and-mortar store, these units will have large patio spaces and a full bar.
The near-term strategy is to continue building company-owned restaurants. Mesches says the company is too early into its development to decide whether to franchise. But whatever Picnik decides, it will be supported by a host of restaurant veterans hailing from such powerhouse brands as Outback, Whataburger, The Cheesecake Factory, Arby’s, Sonic, Lettuce Entertain You, Houston’s, The Habit Burger Grill, and Sam Fox Restaurant Concepts.
“We feel very strongly that this concept can grow to at least 75 restaurants around the country,” Mesches says. “We have a team that’s done that kind of thing before, but we’re going to do it at the right pace and in the right way. Just like our food is mindful and with conscious choice, so is our growth.”