Though the sector’s growth has slowed compared to recent years, fast casual continues to be an industry bright spot. Fast-casual restaurants are expected to grow 7.5% this year, according to research from Restaurant Business’ sister company Technomic, presented at the recent Restaurant Leadership Conference. That’s about twice the rate of quick-service concepts and more than four times the rate of midscale restaurants.
As new fast casuals continue to emerge and grow, the nimble brands remain incubators for menu and technological innovations. Here’s a look at a handful of the newest, and most innovative, entrants to the fast-casual market.
1. Celeb- and student-driven robot kitchen
Restaurateur Daniel Boulud has teamed up with MIT students to create Spyce, a heavily-automated fast-casual restaurant that’s focused on keeping prices low. Diners order their customizable bowls via kiosk, and premeasured ingredients tumble “across a mechanized track, Rube Goldberg-style, and into a nonstick barrel-shaped pot heated over an induction panel,” according to a recent profile in The New Yorker. The cooked ingredients get dumped into a bowl just before a hot-water jet scrubs the cooking pot clean.
2. Full-service operator jumps to fast casual
It’s a not-uncommon career path these days for a full-service restaurateur to make the leap to fast casual. Rajesh Bhardwaj, CEO and founder of Michelin-starred Indian tasting-menu spot Junoon, recently launched Bowl & Blade in New York City. The customizable bowl restaurant features mix-and-match bases, proteins and vegetables with influences from Greek, Hawaiian, Korean, Peruvian and Mediterranean cuisines and more.
3. Cashing in on pickles
From pickle slushies to pickle-heavy cocktails and more, the briny flavor profile is trending right now. New fast-casual restaurant Lucky Pickle Dumpling Co. (from the owner of full-service Southern restaurant Jacob’s Pickles) sells more than just pickles from its 15-seat New York City unit. But its pickle-flavored soft serve is grabbing headlines. The pan-Asian menu also includes a half-dozen dumpling varieties, noodles and a Sriracha pickle slaw.
4. Fast-casual Italian from industry vet
Chef Michael Pirolo, who runs full-service Italian restaurant Macchialina in Miami Beach, Fla., and The Saint Austere in Brooklyn, N.Y., developed a fast-casual spinoff called Pirolo’s Panino, which opened recently in Los Angeles. The delivery-focused concept serves chicken Parmesan sandwiches, baked pasta, Italian dips and other comfort foods. Next up, it’s looking to expand with a delivery-only unit in downtown LA as well as a store in Santa Monica, Calif., according to Food & Wine magazine.