Fast-Casual Is the New Normal

The way we eat in the East Bay is changing.


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Counter-service spots like Cosecha eschew formality.

Photo by Lori Eanes

From its opening in the spring of 2014, until the winter of 2016, alaMar Kitchen & Bar provided customers with the full, conventional restaurant experience—a greeter guiding them to a table and servers taking their orders and delivering blue crab poppers, chef Nelson German’s refined version of a Louisiana crawfish boil, and other seafood dishes. Diners could linger over cocktails and a table-service meal for a couple of hours. In December, German closed alaMar for a few weeks and, following the lead of the fastest growing trend in East Bay dining, reopened his business in January as a “fast-casual” restaurant, with customers perusing a tighter, but customizable, menu, ordering and picking up their meals at a counter, moving in and out of the space at a much quicker pace.

Americans have been eating out in the fast-casual style for the past 20 years. The approach, exemplified by such national chains as Boston Market, Chipotle, El Pollo Loco, and Panera Bread, arose as an alternative to fast food and, in addition to its limited-service format, is characterized by fresher and higher quality ingredients, made-to-order and more complexly flavored dishes, slightly more upscale or distinctive interior design, and lower average meal prices than a full-service restaurant.

In the East Bay, restaurant-goers have been eating fast-casual for decades—at mom-and pop taquerias, Italian delicatessens, and pizza parlors, but until recently, table-service restaurants have been the heart and soul of the dining scene. That is changing fast, eclipsing even the tasting-menu approach that many chefs have adopted to contain operating costs and waste. East Bay fast-casual diverges radically from the corporate approach by manifesting a more artisanal, gourmand-pleasing nature at places like Cosecha and AS B-Dama in the Swan’s Market nexus of unique counter-service restaurants, and Summer Kitchen in the Elmwood District. Some are bakery-based, such as Bakesale Betty and Firebrand Artisan Breads, many are spin-offs of full-service restaurants—Tacubaya from Doña Tomás, Xolo from Flora, Southie from Wood Tavern—and others are one-offs, like the casual, not-so-fast butchery-based Clove and Hoof, and The Gastropig, the instantly popular, bacon-glorifying Uptown project of entrepreneurs Ann Thai and Loren Goodwin and recently added executive chef Lance Dean Velasquez.

The ongoing fast-casual surge got its biggest high-profile jolt in May 2016, when chefs Daniel Patterson (Coi, Alta, Alfred’s, Plum Bar) and Roy Choi (Kogi BBQ Trucks, Chego!, A-Frame, Pot) opened Locol, with the motto, “real fast food made with the ideology, heart and science of a chef.” Patterson and Choi zealously promote a mission of community empowerment and wholesome and affordable fast-food alternatives in their burgers, bowls, and taco-like “foldies,” while other chefs are embracing the fast-casual concept as a way of growing their businesses in a challenged dining marketplace.

Photo by Lori Eanes

Preeti Mistry, co-owner of Juju Beach Club, said fast-casual offers satisfying opportunities to "play and have fun."

The Gastropig and alaMar kicked off 2017’s run of blistering hot fast-casual openings, which, by the beginning of March should include the debuts of The Kebabery, in the old Salsipuedes space, from chef Russell Moore and his wife, Allison Hopelain, extrapolating from the Kebab Mondays they have featured at Camino, and Navi Kitchen, in Emeryville’s Bakery Lofts, by Juhu Beach Club chef Preeti Mistry and her wife, Ann Nadeau, plus the reopening of a broadened-concept Mockingbird, moving from San Pablo Avenue (where Curry Up Now has opened) to 13th Street near Franklin.

Mockingbird’s husband-and-wife team, William Johnson and Melissa Axelrod, built a fast-casual component into their new business plan—a lunchtime “quick menu” of soups, salads, and sandwiches (such as a Cubano on a Firebrand Bakery pretzel roll) that can be ordered at the counter and taken to go or eaten inside—because it fits their vision of the restaurant as “a community gathering place,” Axelrod explained, “appealing to people looking for a quick delicious bite as well as those who want to enjoy a more relaxed dining experience.” The restaurant “will be able to serve a greater amount of people more efficiently with this model, which hopefully translates into larger sales all around,” she said. “Fast-casual works well for the customers because they usually have a limited time to get lunch, and a quick service format gives them the option to get their food quickly and have time to enjoy it on-site, or take it back to their desks.”

For Nelson German, fast-casual was a way to rescue a sinking business. Under the same economic pressures that have precipitated the shuttering of so many other restaurants, Nelson, and his wife, May, had transformed their full-service sit-down operation into an order-at-the-counter operation, specializing in quick poke and Dominican rice bowls (as well as seafood boils). Economic necessity was the mother of reinvention.

“With the minimum wage increase, which we support but unfortunately can’t afford, and new Oakland business mandates,” German explained, “we knew we had to make a change before it was too late. The housing crisis in Oakland is decreasing the amount of people going out to eat. Our covers [individual meals served] were down 15 percent from 2015. Even though our sales were 10 percent higher due to increase in prices, it just wasn’t enough to survive as a full-service restaurant.”

“If anyone understands the margins in the restaurant business, they know that nobody’s getting rich at our level,” said Preeti Mistry, who was finishing her first cookbook at the same time she and Ann Nadeau were putting the finishing touches on Navi Kitchen. “We cap out every day at Juhu, but because of the size of our restaurant, 45 seats, it’s difficult to expand the business. And because we are an Indian restaurant, people don’t value what we do as much as European-based cuisines,” so they are not ready to accept the higher prices warranted by the ingredients and skills. A fast-casual approach, Mistry explained, offers a couple of satisfying opportunities beyond slightly increasing margins through lower costs, quicker diner turnover, and more catering and to-go and delivery orders: to “play and have fun” with Indian and other traditions (daily/seasonal curries; Neapolitan-style pizzas with Indian toppings and house-made pickles; breakfast sandwiches based on pav; tikka masala mac 'n'  cheese with Baia pasta; burnt masala–brined rotisserie chicken with garlic-turmeric mashed potatoes; a DIY chai bar), and to “put more of our great people in leadership roles.”

Navi Kitchen will be tip-inclusive from “day one,” Mistry said, because that’s one way of addressing the inequality between front of house and back of house employees in “a broken system built on the oppression of brown people and women, a system that is built to keep people in boxes, using, among other things, performance-based rewards.”

Nelson German is already reaping the benefits of the switch to a fast-casual approach. “Since we have re-opened, we have seen our labor cost drop 12 percent, which has exceeded my expectation,” he said. “Every time I let people know why we switched to this format, they tell me they are going to come in more often. I am confident they will, as now they can afford to come in more than once a week.”

As Preeti Mistry said, “We’re all looking at the financial picture in Oakland, trying to figure out how we can do what we love in the new economic conditions, and trying to build a more sustainable business system, which is the same as having a more sustainable restaurant.”

 

Published online on March 29, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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