Growth is always fueled by self-reflection, assessment and adjustment. “The requirement today is to have a much more dialed-in approach,” says Kalt. “That specificity is reflected in newer concepts hitting the market. Now, instead of pizzas, burgers or tacos, we’re seeing more adventurous themes, like Singaporean street food or Cuban food.”
Piada, an Italian concept with a focus on piadas, pastas and salads, launched in 2010, doubled in size in 21/2 years, and now has an expected growth rate of 25 percent for 2018. Specificity for this brand, says Harding, involves a more intense flavor focus. He reports that Piada rolled out a bigger LTO process in summer 2016, looking to expand its seasonal tie-ins. The Summer Avocado Piada, a hand-rolled Italian flatbread filled with roasted sweet corn and tomatoes, fresh avocado, arugula, mozzarella, pancetta and basil aïoli, claimed 17 percent of sales—that’s a 15-percent spike from the brand’s last LTO.
“That was really surprising for us,” says Harding. “It’s a huge percentage of guests ordering that item, which causes you to ask, ‘Why is it resonating?’ The flavors are bright and fresh and forward, so maybe that’s it. Or is it because this is what they’re looking for in this space, and this is an opportunity to develop more complex flavor builds? Previously, our builds were pretty straightforward.”
To answer the question of whether it was a singular success or an indicator of evolving flavor preferences, Harding rolled out a fall version of the piada, switching out summer corn for roasted butternut squash. “It did really well, too,” he says. “That solidified in our mind that you can create complex flavors and your guests will find it and love it.”
Next up is an exploration of breakfast fare. “We’re looking at the breakfast daypart—not necessarily about opening during morning hours, but adding breakfast items that will sell at lunch and beyond,” says Harding.
Cava, a Mediterranean fast casual based in Washington, D.C., looks forward by continuing to innovate around flavor profiles. Starting with one unit in 2011, the brand now boasts 34 and is expecting to reach 40 by the end of the year.
“We are constantly experimenting with new flavors,” says Nikki Rappaport, director of innovation for this build-your-own, better-for-you fast casual.
She cites the R&D behind the brand’s successful housemade juices program as an example. “We test several versions of one drink with various levels of herbs and spices to find the most balanced one that both introduces our customers to new flavors and has broad appeal.” Cava’s Lemonade with Turmeric and its Grapefruit & Mint Raspberry Shrub are two examples of beverages that strike that balance.
She and her team also push innovation through salad dressings, adding both Turmeric Tahini and Green Harissa as seasonal options. “We were only planning on keeping them for a few months,” says Rappaport. “They were so popular, we actually debuted these two flavors in our launch of retail dressings, and Green Harissa has remained on our menu full time.”
Further exploration in flavor play, particularly with heat levels, is in the works at Cava. “Chef Dimitri Moshovitis is always looking to bring flavors from his Greek heritage,” she says. “My favorite things we’re working on include slow-cooked meats, playing with spice combinations for all ingredients, and finding more opportunities to bring heat to the menu.”
Vitality Bowls, a self-proclaimed superfood café concept based in San Ramon, Calif., is finding continued success through landing on craveable combinations that tout health and wellness. Currently, this brand that serves up açai bowls, smoothies, juices, paninis and salads has 33 units, but anticipates breaking 50 by the end of the year, according to Tara Gilad, co-founder and COO.
“The future of fast casual is in the health and wellness space,” she says. “Younger generations are more educated and more concerned about their health. But of course, it has to be delicious. We rely heavily on word of mouth—once they try it, they love it.”
Vitality Bowls offers monthly bowl specials to energize the menu and introduce guests to new ingredients. The Pumpkin Bowl, a fall offering, is a top-selling item. “Customers are obsessed with it, and start asking for it well before October,” she says. It’s a base of açai blended with almond milk, organic raw pumpkin, cinnamon, banana and strawberry, topped with organic hemp/flax seed granola, banana, strawberry, organic sprouted pumpkin seeds, honey and nutmeg.
The Halal Guys offers a different case study. This Middle Eastern fast casual is on fire, moving from a street-cart empire in New York that was founded in 1990 to a jump to brick-and-mortar in 2010 that has now grown to 53 units across the country. By the end of the year, they project a count of more than 70 units both here and abroad.
As this brand—known for its craveable, filling platters of chicken and gyro with a signature white sauce—is new to fast casual, its insights stem from adaptation rather than evolution. “We’re known for a simplistic, straightforward menu,” says Andrew Eck, director of marketing. “We have to see how our fans respond to an expanded menu that fits this model better.”
The Halal Guys has added sides, including hummus, tabbouleh and baba ghanouj. It also released its first LTO recently: Spicy Hummus. “We were extremely pleased with the result,” Eck says. “We’re discussing internally about overall response and what we are able to achieve for overall sales mix, and we’re exploring adding more LTOs to the mix.”
One thing Eck is carefully guarding is the brand’s reputation—it’s literal street cred. “My biggest task is protecting the vibe and electricity we’re known for in the streets of New York and making sure that translates into a strip mall in California.”