Even with small footprints and a strict no-substitution policy, Num Pang has managed to succeed in New York’s crowded restaurant scene, with average unit volumes of about $1.8 million. The fast-casual brand is known for its chef-crafted Cambodian-style sandwiches and its New York style, with restaurants featuring graffitied walls and blaring hip-hop music. The menu merges the flavors co-founder and Cambodia native Ratha Chaupoly grew up on with the culinary techniques co-founder Ben Daitz picked up while working stints at Michelin-starred restaurants. Since launching with a 550-square-foot unit in 2009, Num Pang has expanded to eight New York locations and is gearing up to enter Boston next month. Here’s a look at why Num Pang is a concept to watch.
Num Pang’s first unit was in a converted car rental shop that measured 225 square feet. Daitz says they knocked out the ceiling for an additional 225 square feet and kept the kitchen on the ground floor and seating on the top floor, accessed by a “use at your own risk” spiral staircase. That first unit taught Daitz and Chaupoly how to operate in tight quarters, which helped the brand as they expanded. While its other locations aren’t as small as the first site, Num Pang tends to operate in small spaces ranging from 500 to 2,000 square feet, which saves on real estate costs.
Cambodian sandwiches, and more to come
Num Pang is known for its namesake sandwiches that are made to order on a freshly toasted, proprietary-recipe semolina flour baguette, which the concept sources from a New York bakery. Sandwich varieties include five-spice glazed pork belly with pickled Asian pear and ginger barbecue brisket with pickled red cabbage. But as the brand expands, Num Pang wants to be known as more than a sandwich shop. Daitz says the menu has been trending lighter over the years, with Num Pang now offering options like an organic tofu salad and a seasonal vegetable rice bowl. Soon, the chain will add a line of super-grain rice bowls featuring farro and two types of quinoa. Num Pang also offers a varied beverage menu, with Cambodian iced coffee and a proprietary line of all-natural drinks that includes lemon gingerade and blood orange lemonade.
The customer is not always right
Despite being in a sector known for the build-your-own customization model, Num Pang forbids any substitutions or modifications. “We really take a lot of thought and care into these sandwiches and rice bowls, and we feel it’s a really slippery slope once you start accommodating different requests,” Daitz says. “People then take a product you haven’t created and pass judgment on it.”
Daitz says Num Pang’s menu is varied enough to accommodate those with allergies and dietary restrictions, and staff suggest alternatives when a customer requests a modification. The concept also offers a quinoa-based bread for gluten-free customers and soy- and yogurt-based sandwich spreads for those who don’t like mayonnaise.
While Daitz says he’s been called “every name in the book” for not allowing substitutions, the controversial policy doesn’t appear to affect Num Pang’s sales. Daitz says the chain recorded about $12 million in sales in 2015, with an average ticket of $13 and average unit volume of about $1.8 million. That may be due to traffic flow, with Daitz saying the no-substitution policy “100%” speeds up throughput.
Ahead of the delivery game
While other concepts are just getting into delivery, Num Pang has been offering the service since day one. The chain works with third-party services like Grubhub and Seamless to offer delivery for individual and catering orders. Due to the explosion of third-party delivery services (Daitz says Num Pang receives about 10 emails a week from different delivery providers), the brand uses a logistics company to manage its delivery partnerships.
Next on deck for Num Pang is Boston, which will mark the chain’s first venture outside New York City. Num Pang is slated to open a site in the city’s Prudential Center in November and aims to open four to five more locations in the area.
Other plans include updating technology—with the aim of rolling out online and mobile ordering via its app in 2017—and continuing its Chefs Give Back program, in which Num Pang partners with a well-known chef or celebrity to develop a limited-time sandwich, with the proceeds going to the guest chef’s charity of choice. Past contributors include chef Mario Batali and Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys, and Daitz says Num Pang has “a couple of surprise guests” lined up for new collaborations.