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Fast casual vet launches two food hall-based concepts

butterleaf veggie plate

Much like food trucks before them, food halls are the new go-to format for incubating a restaurant concept.

Chef Andrew Gruel knows this well. Gruel’s California-based fast-casual sustainable fish chain Slapfish got its start via food truck. Slapfish, which launched in 2010 and began franchising three years later, now has eight U.S. units, with sales climbing 38.7% from 2015 to 2016, according to Technomic data.

And just this week, Gruel is launching two new concepts at the just-opened Trade Food Hall in Irvine, Calif. There’s Two Birds, a “better chicken” restaurant that opened just this week, and Butterleaf, an all-veggie affair slated to roll out any day now.

Two Birds uses only fresh Jidori chicken (grilled or crispy) for its Bird in the Hand sandwich, Bird in the Bush salad or Bag of Chicken with two, three or four pieces. The chicken is served with a choice of Tiger Sauce (creamy Sriracha and garlic), Fry Sauce (pureed tomato confit) or Creamy Herb (Kewpie mayonnaise and crushed dill). Side offerings include macaroni and cheese, cottage fries, salt-and-vinegar slaw and spicy pickles.

Plant-based Butterleaf caters to vegetarians and omnivores with dishes like sweet potato-black bean burgers, build-your-own bowls and wraps, a daily poutine, and seaweed-based Umami Chips. The concept does not serve any alternative meats.

“Vegetables don’t get the center-of-the-plate attention they deserve,” Gruel says.

Both concepts will see check averages in the $12-$13 range, he says.

Instead of moving from food truck to brick and mortar, Gruel expects to see more concepts around the country moving from food halls to fully developed concepts.

“It’s like the sophomore album for food trucks,” he says.

Gruel says he is already scouting other food hall prospects in which to expand Two Birds and Butterleaf. Having designed kitchens for this 800-square-foot space, he can “just copy and paste” into a different food hall, he says.

In many ways, food halls serve as better experimental canvases for operators than food trucks. Food halls more closely mimic traditional brick-and-mortar units, both in layout and in their fixed location. Much like food trucks, though, food halls typically allow consumers to sample a wide variety of concepts.

“The beauty of food trucks is that they travel in a rolling gang,” Gruel says. “Food halls have the same effect.”

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