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.
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.
CUSTOMER LINE / VISIBLE COOKING & PREP
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.