Next Big Thing For Fast Casual – What’s Up With Italian?

A few weeks ago I ventured up to New York (a forward thinking restaurant town and bastion of great Italian or so I thought) to dig down and learn more about the Fast Casual Italian competition up there and how it stacks up to Fresh Hospitality’s Fast Casual Italian concept Tellini’s.

 I started my research with a concept Chase Gilbert  had recommended to me called Vapiano. Further research uncovered a few more fast casual Italian contenders, but to be honest it wasn’t very easy to find restaurants claiming to be fast casual Italian in NYC. Vapiano (a European import) came up in several of my Google searches, Nooi Pasta To Go (another European import), Hello Pasta dubbed “the next Chipotle” (turns out they went out of business a few months ago) and Cafe Metro which has the most locations in Manhattan out of all the competitors. The gulf between these concepts was massive.

 Vapiano

http://www.vapianointernational.com

 Let me start off my analysis of Vapiano with a bit off their website that I found really relevant:

“Somewhere between the nicest of fast casual and hippest of casual dining restaurants is VAPIANO. Defining the future of fresh casual – a new and refreshing niche in the restaurant industry – Vapiano is an innovative European concept serving made-to-order hand tossed pizzas, fresh, house-made pasta and hand tossed gourmet salads.”

The number one thing that sticks out to me in this paragraph is how Vapiano describes their restaurant as FRESH CASUAL and not FAST CASUAL. I think this is a vital distinction and one that Fresh Hospitality (get it?) needs to start making about all of our brands.

When people in the industry talk about Fast Casual names like Panera Bread, Five Guys, and Chipotle crop up over and over. All of these brands essentially run a fast food service model with a build your own menu and food that is much better quality than fast food. The same thing comes to mind when I look at Garbanzo, Roti, Tokyo Joes and all the other big players in the fast casual space. At the end of the day – Fresh Hospitality’s brands are really on another level – offering completely fresh food (no freezers, no fryers), chef designed and chef driven menus, and a level of table service.

I think positioning Fresh Hospitality as the industry leader in Fresh Casual could not only be a great move in moving into another tier in our customers minds but also a great marketing maneuver for building PR and spreading the word about Fresh Hospitality.

The enormous gulf between Vapiano and the other two restaurants I visited was astonishing and I think it really highlights the differences between fast casual and FRESH CASUAL. Vapiano destroyed the other two restaurants. Their pasta was made fresh (see below for pictures of it being made), boiled to order, the sauce was created in front of your eyes in a pan, the pizza crust was rolled right in front of me – and the food was delicious. The pasta tasted so fresh and flavorful. The pizza was phenomenal.

When I was being greeted by the hostess and informing her that this was my first time at Vapiano – a “raving fan” walking out the door goes “Oh my god – you’re going to LOVE IT it’s SO GOOD.”

A couple other notes on the decor and the service model. They used the Dean & Delucca service model of ordering different things from different stations – this resulted in the entire ordering process being complete chaos. I was neglected for 5 minutes waiting in what may or may not have been the pasta line and even at one point got into an argument with another customer over who was next.

The small saving grace was their use of “Vapiano Cards” that you simply tapped at each station and cashed out upon leaving – at least paying wasn’t as big of a hassle as it is at Dean & Deluca.

They also had mostly community seating available. This is probably a combination of being from Europe originally and also being located in NYC. However, the layout looked great and it worked pretty well.  They also had a full service bar with a wide selection of wines and liquors as part of the draw for increased dinner business. Here are my shots of the store.

Here you can see them making fresh cut pasta. They batched the pasta into plastic “portion” sized containers that they used for cooking.

Shelf of batched pastas (Fresh made that day) – the pasta chef would take one out and plop it into their pasta cooker when a customer selected a particular type of pasta.

 

 

Cafe Metro

http://www.cafemetrony.com/

I found Cafe Metro on my Google search for fast casual Italian spots in New York City. They have a number of locations (10+) in Manhattan and seem to be relatively successful. The food is a combination of soups, salads, sandwiches and made to order pasta. I would say despite the fact that they didn’t serve pizza – the place reminded me of a hybrid Sbarro and Panera Bread – with a dash of New York deli thrown in. Not your typical Italian fast casual but its seen a lot of success in NYC and serves much of the same types of food as Tellinis. They technically refer to themselves as “gourmet fast food.”

The restaurant itself was lackluster – I think it may have actually been a converted Sbarro. It felt very fast food and smelled a bit strange. I ordered a build your own pasta with linguini, red sauce, tomatoes, sausage and onions (see below for a picture). The pasta was okay. It wasn’t tough and chewy but it lacked any real flavor. The soups and sandwiches had clearly been sitting out all day and did not look the least bit appetizing. The pasta presentation looked a bit shabby as well having just eaten at Vapiano. Here are a couple pictures.

Nooi Pasta To Go

http://nooionthego.com/

From my research on fast casual Italian in NYC I came across several articles talking about the two fast casual pasta juggernauts battling it out in NYC. The first was Hello Pasta aka “the next Chipotle” which is now out of business. The second was Nooi.

Quite frankly, I found nothing about Nooi even remotely appealing. The decor was a freakish bright purple with red velvet chairs strewn about. The cooking line looked like it was straight out of a fast food restaurant (I will grant them that the pasta area was clean)- the pasta condiments looked as if they had been sitting there for days. The only other food offering besides pasta was a few salads – clearly not fresh – sitting in the refrigerator at the register. The thing that blew my mind was that they actually did a pretty good job promoting their food as both healthy and fresh using wall space – very similar to Garbanzo (see pictures below).

When I asked the clerk behind the counter if they made the pasta fresh (the pasta was sitting flaccidly in a few jars on the counter) – he first responded “yes look we boil it right here,” when asked about the creation of the noodles themselves he replied “oh no we buy it like that – just like you would get in a store.” He may need to make a visit to Vapiano.

The food was grotesque (I’ll let you see the presentation for yourself below) – the pasta was chewy, hard, and tasted like cardboard. The meatballs were almost cold. I could barely take more than 2 or 3 bites. I won’t say any more about the food because it is making my stomach hurt just thinking about it. The pictures can do the rest of the talking.

The lesson – Nooi is still able to drill the message into their customers that their food is fresh and healthy (I seriously question that it is EITHER). And they do a pretty good job of delivering the message. Check out this wall art.

Here we go – the pasta. This is how it was served to me.

And here is the pasta itself.

Key Takeaways

There are a couple key takeaways from my fast casual Italian research. The single most important takeaway in my mind is the distinction between Fast Casual and Fresh Casual. As Fresh Hospitality we need to think about our marketing and brand strategy more along the lines of defining ourselves as the best-in-class industry leader of the emerging Fresh Casual market segment.

Fast casual is already heavily crowded with success stories and market leaders (Chipotle, Five Guys, Panera, Raving Brands, etc).  In the book The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing the authors argue that the single most important thing in marketing is being the first in a specific category – and the book goes on to advocate that you create your own category to become first in if you aren’t first in your existing category.

From a PR and branding perspective (and ultimately in the battle for our customer’s mindshare) creating and promoting the category of “Fresh Casual” and being the leaders in this space could be a great move for Fresh Hospitality. It doesn’t hurt that our organization already has Fresh in the name.  A couple other things to note.

  • Focus on super fresh and scratch made ingredients
  • The power of seeing your food being made in front of you, which we have also seen at top Fast (or should I say Fresh) Casual places like Rick Bayless’s Xoco and numerous competitors who have their fresh baked pita coming out while the customers are in line such as Roti and Garbanzo
  • Pasta (specifically Build-Your-Own Pasta) is the focus of the market right now – not only was most of Vapiano’s layout focused on pasta, but the other concepts were primarily centered on pasta as well
  • Vapiano is clearly the leader in this market at the moment
  • A number of European players in the Fast Casual Italian space
  • Fast Casual Italian seems like a relatively underdeveloped market as a whole(difficult to find restaurants calling themselves fast casual Italian even in a major market like NYC)
  • Use of in-your-face wall art talking about how fresh and healthy the food is – even at a place that serves mediocre food that could hardly be considered healthy.

There are a few other emerging players in the Fast Casual Italian space right now – most notably (the one I’ve heard the most buzz about) Piada in Columbus, OH (which I plan on visiting soon).  Very few people are focusing on Italian as a whole – most of the players are either doing Pasta or Pizza. The combo of Pizza, Pasta, Panini, and Salad – combined with a focus on truly fresh made and natural ingredients – could be a huge winner. This is a really under developed market and could present a very big opportunity to grow Tellinis and share our vision for fresh, healthy “Fresh Casual” Italian food with our customers.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned – join in the conversation in the comments and on Twitter!

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.

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