Emerging Brands

A tale of 2 fast casuals—one Italian and one Indian—and how they grew

Piada Italian Street Food and Choolaah Indian BBQ both personalize the fast-casual model to fit their mission, with authentic food and passion driving growth.
global bowls
Piada Italian Street Food and Choolaah Indian BBQ both feature bowls and wraps that reflect their cuisines. | Photos courtesy of Piada and Choolaah.

The idea for Piada Italian Street Food started on a napkin.

“There was no fast-casual Italian concept at the time,” Matthew Harding, Piada’s SVP of culinary and menu innovation told the audience at FoodService Director’s annual MenuDirections conference on Sunday. “Our founder [Chris Doody] discovered piadina at a café in Italy, took some freshness cues from Chipotle and hospitality cues from Panera, and now we have 51 locations in seven states.”

Piadina is a foldable, Italian flatbread and after adapting the recipe, Piada opened its first location in Columbus, Ohio, in 2010. Tortillas and pitas were already mainstream at the time but even though piadinas were a novelty, the premise was similar; all are the base for convenient, handheld wrapped sandwiches. Piada aimed to fill its flatbreads with fresh, authentic ingredients that capture the essence of Italy’s roadside cafes and corner markets.

 

Piadina

The handheld Caprese Piada features roasted tomatoes, basil pesto, arugula and mozzarella.

“The main driver behind fast casual is the democratization of food,” said Harding, who went on to outline the steps to creating a fast-casual model from start to finish. It’s a model that college dining, healthcare and other noncommercial segments are striving to replicate without sacrificing authenticity.  

To keep it real, Piada formulated the “core four” in 2015—four easily executable goals that support and guide its mission. Harding outlined them for MenuDirections attendees:

• Genuine hospitality: Everything begins and ends with the guest in mind

• Passionate chefs and team members; hiring and training staff is key

• Thoughtfully prepared food; everything is crafted fresh and there are no freezers in units

• Discipline and focus; passion drives discipline

As far as the menu goes, Piada expanded from Italian-inspired hand-wrapped sandwiches to grain and greens bowls, tossed pastas and street sides. The chain also evolved from an emphasis on customized build-your-own meals to a majority of chef-curated selections.

“Customers may create something disgusting and then blame Piada because it doesn’t taste good,” said Harding. “This way, they have a great experience. And we make the menu repeatable and effortless so our teams can do their best work.”

Democratization of food is the same driver powering Choolaah Indian BBQ.

The Indian fast casual launched in Cleveland in 2014, a few years after Piada, and has grown slowly and methodically. The concept will have seven locations by the end of this year with another 13 on college campuses.

Choolaah’s menu democratizes Indian cuisine to make it more accessible while keeping it authentic. During a MenuDirections general session on Tuesday, Choolaah’s chief product and wellbeing officer, Simran Sethi, led attendees through the numerous and diverse culinary styles in India, demonstrating how they adapt to a fast-casual menu. And while hot spices characterize some curries from the South, most Indian food is not hot, she said.

Like Piada, bowls and wraps are the main players on Choolaah’s menu, with street foods as supporting characters. Instead of the piadina, naan is the carrier for tandoori chicken or lamb, a cauliflower and chickpea combo or paneer. Guests choose veggies and house-made sauces like spicy mango, Choolaah ranch and green chili hot sauce to complete the wrap.

On the bowl side, Choolaah offers four signatures to which diners can add a protein (chicken, lamb, salmon, paneer, veggie croquette or tofu.)

slider

Choolaah's street foods lineup includes Indian-inspired sliders called Pav Bhaji. 

The street food section includes traditional choices such as samosas as well as Pav Bhaji, a slider filled Indian-style with a vegetarian version of the sloppy Joe.

Choolaah exemplifies why Indian-inspired bowls, wraps and street snacks fit well into the fast casual model and the timing is right to expand onto more college campuses. Sethi pointed out that there’s been 30% growth of Indian students at U.S. colleges in the last few years and Indian is the fastest growing cuisine on Instagram.

The health angle also matches up with the current “food as medicine” movement. “Ayurveda is the bedrock of Indian culinary philosophy,” Sethi said. The system is based on eating according to the seasons, the healing power of spices and herbs and achieving a balance of body, mind, spirit and the environment.

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