As Americans continue to shelter at home, the demand for family meals keeps increasing. Several fast casuals are capitalizing on this trend by creating more dinner-centric menu items for takeout and delivery. Pre-pandemic, the bulk of this segment’s business came from lunch orders focusing on salads, bowls and sandwiches, but now housebound families are seeking on-trend dinner options.
Sweetgreen jumped on this opportunity by debuting an entirely new category: the Plates menu. The lineup includes nine offerings, with six plant-forward entrees that pair proteins such as Hot Honey Chicken, Herby Fish, Tofu Steak and Miso Chicken with vegetables, whole grains and beans. For the first time, the health-focused chain is also offering sides that can be purchased separately. These include Spicy Pesto Sweet Potatoes and Cauliflower Rice + Beans.
The meals are packaged on square plates to differentiate them from the chain’s signature salads and warm bowls, and the components are placed next to each other to resemble a traditional dinner plate. Already in ideation, the plates were originally scheduled to roll out in 2021, but Sweetgreen’s chefs sped up development in response to increased consumer demand for warm, satisfying options as families spend more time around the dinner table.
“We’re continuing to look for ways to evolve our offerings as the needs of our guests change due to the impact of COVID-19,” said Nicolas Jammet, Sweetgreen’s co-founder and chief concept officer, in a statement. “With Plates, our goal is to help create meaningful connections and good-for-you dining experiences during times where it may seem hard to do so.”
With most of its six New York City locations in neighborhoods surrounded by office buildings, Fields Good Chicken was a mostly lunch-driven concept, according to founder and CEO Field Failing. “Before coronavirus, our whole roast chicken wasn’t a huge piece of our product mix. We sold many more bowls and salads,” he said. “But in the last two months or so, our menu has shifted into larger format meals.”
About three weeks into the stay-at-home order, Failing built a family meal around that whole chicken, rounding it out with three sides and housemade cornbread. “We saw that people were ordering larger volumes of food to feed their families, and this package easily serves four to five, or provides leftovers for another meal,” he said. “It’s become one of our bestsellers and will stay on our menu for good.”
Chopt Creative Salad Co., another bowl-centric fast casual, also expanded into family meals when COVID-19 closed its restaurants. “We knew that people would be looking for a healthy, easy solution to feed their families,” said David Menis, VP of marketing. “We also knew that not everyone’s quarantine ‘family’ was a traditional family. They could be roommates, groups of friends, multigenerational families, etc.” To fit that flexibility, the chain offers households a 20% discount off a group order of $40, promoting packages such as the Caesar Family Meal featuring two LTO salads—Spicy Sonoma Caesar and Mexican Street Corn Caesar—targeted at dinner customers.
“Although we’ve seen the family meals ordered throughout the day, there’s definitely been an increase in our dinner business, particularly in our suburban locations where the promotion is paired with curbside pickup,” said Menis. Chopt plans to continue to carry family meals and iterate on them in the future to incorporate additional menu items.
Bowl concepts are not the only ones expanding the menu into dinner territory. Smashburger recently launched three Take & Make Family Meal Kits, with all the ingredients and directions to make burgers or sandwiches and tots for four hungry diners. The choices include beef patties with all the fixings, crispy chicken sandwiches and smoked bacon brisket burgers. Also appealing to the sandwiches-for-dinner crowd is Schlotzsky’s; its Family Meal Deal is available only after 4 p.m. In addition to deli sandwiches, customers have the option of pizzas and flatbreads, with chips and cookies on the side.
Many fast casuals have always had the ingredients and innovation to move their menus into the dinner daypart. The coronavirus has provided a customer base and sped up the process and for some operators, there may be no turning back.
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.