One of the fastest-growing segments in fast casual is “specialty”—a catchall category comprising concepts that don’t fit into defined cuisines like chicken, sandwich and Asian. Year-over-year sales for the specialty fast-casual segment increased 17.1% in 2015, according to Technomic—that’s more of an increase than the fast-casual segment as a whole.
Restaurant Business has been tracking many new fast casuals that fall in the specialty segment, as operators look to carve out their own niche in underrepresented cuisines such as Middle Eastern and fusion rather than compete in the crowded mainstream sectors. Here’s a look at some recently launched specialty fast casuals, from an Asian-Texas restaurant to a Roman pizza-sandwich concept. Many operate with a build-your-own format, allowing customers to familiarize themselves with new cuisines by choosing their own ingredients.
This Washington, D.C., fast casual is backed by a team of investors, including former McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson’s venture capital firm Cleveland Avenue. Inspired by D.C.’s signature sausage dish of the same name, HalfSmoke offers build-your-own sausage meals starting at around $8. Customers start by choosing a base (bun, flatbread, wild rice or mixed greens) before adding a sausage, such as lamb merguez or beer-poached bratwurst, and toppings. The traditional halfsmoke—a half beef, half pork sausage with a smoky flavor—is also available.
Spireworks in Los Angeles positions itself as a “haven for the traveling foodie” with its menu of globally inspired doner kebabs—the common European street food featuring spit-roasted meat—for under $10. Kebabs at Spireworks come in a variety of flavors, from American-friendly options such as Carolina barbecue and New York-style Reuben to more ethnic accents like Istanbul and Bangkok. A build-your-own section features ingredients such as hoisin sauce, sauerkraut and collard green coleslaw.
With a menu of pulled meats and slaws, Two Forks may seem like a barbecue concept at first glance. But the restaurant in New York City promotes customizable fare made from globally inspired ingredients (and not a barbecue sauce in sight). Customers start by choosing a base (sandwich bun or bowl with jasmine rice, smashed chickpeas, roasted seasonal veggies and super greens) before adding a choice of shredded natural meats or organic spaghetti squash, sauce, slaw and toppings, with choices ranging from harissa Buffalo sauce to Brussels sprouts-kimchi slaw and feta cheese. The “cooked slow and pulled fast” meals start at $7.99.
Set to open in New York this month, Trapizzino will serve its namesake dish, a Roman street food that’s a portable pizza-sandwich hybrid. The concept will offer trapizzini with a variety of fillings, such as braised oxtail, chicken cacciatora and eggplant parmigiana, all priced under $10, according to Eater New York.
Born from an Austin, Texas, food truck, Dragonbeard Kitchen specializes in Asian-Texan fusion. Offerings include banh mi-style sandwiches with ingredients such as smoked beef sausage and pineapple macaroni salad, rice bowls featuring wood-grilled salmon and avocado salsa, and snacks such as barbecue pork-topped fries. The concept soft-opened in January with a limited menu and is set to add breakfast and more options later this month.
While many of the other concepts on this list turn to global influences, Acadia keeps it closer to home with a Southern-style menu that leans Cajun. The Seattle restaurant from a veteran of Jose Andres’ ThinkFoodGroup serves customizable dinner plates with a choice of grain (rice, quinoa or cornbread), two sides (such as andouille sausage with red beans and Creole vegetables) and a protein such as Carolina pulled pork or Gulf shrimp. Also available are sandwiches like a shrimp po’boy and black bean salad wrap, “Nola” iced coffee, beer and wine. The upscale options are mostly priced between $8 and $15.