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Chefs deliver a new wave of high-end fast casuals

After watching colleagues prosper with burgers, a growing number of high-end chefs are stepping outside their white-tablecloth turf to launch fast-casual concepts, this time with menus packing more than just better riffs on fast food staples. 

“Fast casual is wide open. That’s why you see more high-level chefs going in,” says Franklin Becker, chef-owner of The Little Beet, a New York City entrant focused on healthy, farm-to-table food.

Becker also runs The Little Beet Table, with an average check of $55, but The Little Beet, with a $14 average check, is more profitable. “I feed 1,500 customers a day and drop 22 percent to the bottom line,” he says. Becker has plans to expand to seven locations in 2015.

He's hardly the only classically trained chef to notice the higher volumes and better margins that a fast-casual concept can deliver. Nor is he the only one going beyond burgers, pizza or sandwiches, all of which have already attracted a number of entrants in chef’s whites.  Here are six freshly minted concepts that have chefs  behind the counter.

Chef: Donald Link

Fine-dining cred: Herbsaint, Cochon, Peche Seafood Grill
Concept: Cochon Butcher
Locations: One in New Orleans, another opening in Nashville in Spring, 2015
“We’ll see how the second location goes before we commit to opening more,” says Link.

Point of differentiation: The house-cured meats are sourced from heritage pigs that have been raised through Link’s Fatback Pig Project on Southern farms. The menu offers sandwiches, small plates and shareable platters of smoked meats and sausage. Link claims Cochon Butcher is more of a deli than a fast casual—it boasts a full bar, trained servers and a retail outlet that sells the meat products. But the setting is relaxed and prices gentler than in his other restaurants; checks run $18 to $22, says Link. Each location reflects its city’s local vibe. 

Chef: Jose Andres

Fine-dining cred: The Bazaar, Jaleo, Zatinya, minibar, China Poblano
Concept: Beefsteak
Locations: One to open this month at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Point of differentiation: Contrary to its name, Andres’ first fast casual is vegetable-centric—Beefsteak refers to the juicy tomato, not the cut of meat. ThinkFoodGroup, the company founded by Andres and his partners, has been pretty close-mouthed about the concept, but Eater D.C. and the Wall Street Journal reported a few details:
Andres, long a technique geek, is cooking his vegetables, grains and proteins to order in an olive-oil bath. Guests mix and match to create a meal. According to the Washington Post, Andres hopes to open 100 more Beefsteaks. Prices have not yet been disclosed.

Chef: Bradley Ogden

Fine-dining cred: Campton Place Hotel, Lark Creek Inn, Arterra, One Market Restaurant
Concept: Funky Chicken
Locations: One in Houston

Point of differentiation: Slow roasted or lightly fried crispy chicken is the star here, with such sides as quinoa salad and Brussels sprouts. There’s also chicken salad, chicken pot pie and veggie offerings. “It was my dream to bring the best of my farm to table food to the world of fast casual dining,” says Ogden. “I love making my food available to as many people as possible.” Chicken meals with two sides and a homemade biscuit start at $8.99.

Chef: Mike Sheerin

Fine-dining cred: Jean-Georges, WD-50, Blackbird, Trenchermen
Concept: PACKED
Locations: One in Chicago, to open in the spring of 2015

Point of differentiation: The tagline of PACKED is “dumplings reimagined” and the menu at this counter service spot will focus on “an unexpected culinary interpretation of traditional dumplings.” Ingredients are coming in from Midwest farmers and influences from several global cuisines are going to show up on the plate. Prices have not yet been disclosed.
The style will be counter service.

Chef: Gerard Craft

Fine-dining cred: Niche, restaurant Taste by Niche, Pastaria
Concept: Porano Pasta + Gelato
Locations: One opening in St. Louis in spring 2015

Point of differentiation: Seeing a void in fast-casual Italian, Craft spun off his popular Pastaria restaurant into an assembly line-style quick-serve pasta place. Guests choose a base of organic semolina pasta, gluten-free pasta, farro, focaccia or a lettuce mix, followed by a protein option (heritage pork meatballs, for example, or braised beef brisket). Last up is an authentic housemade sauce, such as Sunday sugo or pistachio pesto, and a choice of toppings. The chef offers only one type of pasta—sturdy coiled strozzapreti—chosen for its ability to stand up to the sauce without turning to mush. Prices were not yet available.

Chef: Franklin Becker

Fine-dining cred: Abe and Arthur’s, Brasserie, Tribeca Grand Hotel, Capitale
Concept: The Little Beet
Locations: Two in metro New York area, with seven more slated to open in 2015

Point of differentiation: “Everyone is chasing their tails into the healthy fast-casual segment,” says Becker, but he has personal reasons for the chase: the chef was diagnosed with Type II diabetes at age 27. The Little Beet menu embodies Becker’s quest to get healthy; all the items are free of gluten, GMOs, antibiotics and preservatives, but big on seasonal produce, global flavors and portion control. Guests create customizable meals by pairing sides such as roasted sweet potatoes with sea salt and pecorino and charred cauliflower with each other or soups, salads and proteins. Prices range from $8 to $14. 

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