Devouring 9 Restaurants In 22 Hours – Lessons In Fast Casual From Our Chicago Adventure

This past weekend I traveled with the Fresh Hospitality crew up to Chicago to visit a few friends and scout out some fast casual spots to see what the competition was up to. Our gracious hosts for the weekend were Chicago native Billy Dec and Dave Gilbert of the National Restaurant Association.

I will spare you the gory details but from the time our plane touched down around 5pm until we took off at 3pm the next day – we ate at a grand total of nine different restaurants.

We scoped out several Mexican concepts to see how the competitors stacked up to Little Donkey (our new Mexican concept) but I wanted to share my thoughts on two particularly impressive Fast Casual competitors that we visited. Roti Mediterranean Grill and Rick Bayless’s new Mexican fast casual concept – Xoco.

I am a very strong believer that restaurants live and die on their identity. Both concepts knew what they wanted to be to their guest and executed flawlessly.


I thought that Roti did a nice job. They were fast, friendly, and the food was very good. They are definitely a legitimate competitor in the Mediterranean space . The kabob plate was a really good, well thought out plate of food. The sandwich was great too. Roti is centered around a “build your own” menu (similar to Chipotle) where you take 1 protein and have it on a sandwich, plate, or salad etc. The chain has 12 locations in Chicago and DC and is founded by Bill Post (former president of Levy Restaurants). Store was very busy, line almost out the door when we walked in and it took ~4 minutes to clear the entire line. Very fast and streamlined operation. Food was tasty and relatively healthy. No tipping option available, which more and more fast casual concepts seem to be migrating towards.

Despite the manager and staff’s objections that “no photos were allowed” I managed to snag several good shots of their store and the lunch crowd.

Chipotle Style Build-Your-Own Menu

Busy Line (Under 4 Mins Wait)

A few shots of their line

 Making Fresh Flatbreads

Food – Sultan Sandwich

Food – Chicken Kebab

Food – Chicken Salad


As far as Xoco, there is no doubt who they are and what they are trying to be to their guest. What intrigues and impresses the hell out of me about Rick Bayless is how he can put three Mexican restaurant side by side and pull it off. Fast casual (Xoco) casual (Frontera Grill) Topolobampo (fine dining) Why does this work? Because all of these brands have an identity, it’s called Rick Bayless, and what he stands for . He sources his food right. He has great recipes. He cooks one type of cuisine… Mexican.

It doesn’t matter how he delivers the food to his guest, whether its fine dining or you have to stand in line. What matters is his reputation of delivering high quality food, sourced right and great recipes and it’s all about Mexico. You will not find Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza on his menu. He does one thing and does it well. Another thing that boggles my mind – there isn’t a single taco or burrito on the menu at Xoco. A couple operational notes I made as well below.

The aftermath…


Xoco used bar seating to accommodate a large number of seats in a very tight area. Something to consider for spacing constraints or seating limitations going forward. This pic doesn’t capture it perfectly but I’m telling you they packed about 20 seats into what most people would consider a winding hallway.


Xoco extensively used chalk boards all over the store to tell its story and convey important information to the guests, often used chalk boards in the line itself so customers could read about the local sources of food etc while in line.


Xoco did a fantastic job making their entire cooking and prep process visible to customers, the structure of the line forced customers to walk by as employees were making fresh dough, cooking food, etc – showing that they are proud of their cooking and they want to display how fresh and homemade everything is. You can also see from the pictures that the kitchen is exposed on the outside so people walking by can also peer in and see the fresh food being cooked.

Both of these brands really showcase the direction that fast casual is moving in. Restaurants with a strong identity that know exactly what they want to be to their guest and focus on executing top quality food at a very high level.

Let me know what you think below and Follow Me on Twitter to hear about my adventures in real time.

Matt Bodnar

Matt loves to focus on making deals and big picture strategy. He sets out each day to give more than he takes from every interaction and produce as much value as possible for his partners and the people he works with. As a partner at Fresh Hospitality Matt invests in and operates businesses across the restaurant value chain including agriculture, production, retail distribution, real estate, technology and restaurant operations. Matt previously worked as an import/export consultant in Nanjing, China and spent several years on the Interest Rates Desk at Goldman Sachs before returning to his family roots in Nashville.

7 thoughts on “Devouring 9 Restaurants In 22 Hours – Lessons In Fast Casual From Our Chicago Adventure

  1. VERY well done.. enjoyed your perspective and analysis of the growing fast casual segment (specifically where Fresh Hospitality comes into play). I think with the right focus Fresh Hospitality has a great opportunity to be a major driver in the progression of this segment with a number of its brands. Paying attention to what others do well is a great way to expedite the process, but most importantly an opportunity to create the best experience and therefore highest value for customers. It seems that many operators lose sight of this and it’s great that Fresh Hospitality clearly has not.

  2. hey there and thank you for your info – I’ve definitely picked up anything new from right here. I did however expertise several technical points using this site, as I experienced to reload the website a lot of times previous to I could get it to load correctly. I had been wondering if your hosting is OK? Not that I’m complaining, but sluggish loading instances times will often affect your placement in google and can damage your high quality score if ads and marketing with Adwords. Anyway I’m adding this RSS to my e-mail and can look out for much more of your respective interesting content. Make sure you update this again soon..

  3. Excellent pics and commentary. Our industry is going more and more towards the fast causal. Ran a restaurant in Chicago for a bit, it was fine dining. Great restaurant city. Keep posting about the industry and your endeavors, they are great. Learn all you can form Mr. B. He is the ultimate mentor and taught me more then anyone else. I miss having him as council!

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