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.


 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

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

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!

Coast To Coast Coffee Adventure – Part 2

Hope you enjoyed Part 1 of our Coast To Coast Coffee Adventure – the field recon was a little more sparse from our West Coast division but they did get out in the field and grab some snapshots for us. 

Sight Glass

  • Roaster – Yes (On Site)
  • Pourover – Yes

Sight Glass is a roaster tucked away in a quiet corner of San Francisco. The location was a bit odd, no one was around and it was fairly quiet. The interior was stark, cold and clean with very little activity. The staff was a bit disinterested and cold as well. Sight Glass does have a great selection of locally sourced pastries from several local bakers. Here are a few shots of the store.

Four Barrel

  • Roaster – Yes (On Site)
  • Pourover – Yes
  • Bakery – Local Source

Four Barrel was located in a bustling community in San Fran’s Mission district. It featured a nice selection of outdoor seating as well as a variety of street vendors nearby.  Both the inside and the outside featured some creative engineering and design – including several stuffed boar’s heads on the walls which the owners shared a funny story about with our team.

The vibe in Four Barrel was very energetic, busy and authentic. The staff was friendly, passionate, engaged,  and very willing to share stories with customers. Had a much warmer and more inviting feel than Sight Glass. The in-store roasting operation created a spectacle that people were very interested in seeing.

Four Barrel sells Dynamo Donuts (a well known bakery in San Fran) every morning. They also have no wifi or plugs for electric sockets. Here are a few images of the store.

Key Takeaways

The two strongest players in this market seem to be Stumptown and Four Barrel. They have several similarities. They roast their own beans, retail is displayed over condiment stations, baked goods are sourced from a local supplier, and they both make use of interesting and unique design to create a warm and engaging environment at their store. The biggest difference is Stumptown’s use of the Ace Hotel lobby caters to the laptop crowd, whereas Four Barrel discourages laptop use. Keep in mind that Intelligentsia (Chicago based) is also one of the biggest players in the market but we didn’t get to them on this trip.

Now let’s get to the key takeaways and interesting finds from our coast to coast coffee journey.

  • Great use of in-store posters describing local sourcing (gimme! coffee)
  • Effective small-store footprint for possible future use (Cafe Grumpy)
  • Variety of in-store retail display case options
  • Near the counter or on an adjacent wall
  • Above the condiment station (Four Barrel & Stumptown)
  • Inclusion of chemex, pourover, coffee mugs etc in addition to coffee beans in retail space
  • Most bakery models seem centered around re-selling product from well known local bakeries in a display case
  • Roasting is key – serious contenders in this space all roast their own beans
  • Pourover is also very important – pourover really distinguishes the top tier coffee shops from the more middle of the road players in the market
  • Use of unique decor to create warm and friendly environment (Four Barrel, Stumptown)

Hope you enjoyed – let us know what you think in the comments and on Twitter.

Coast To Coast Coffee Adventure – Where is The Gourmet Coffee Business Heading?

A few weeks ago the Fresh Hospitality team split up and simultaneously journeyed to both the Atlantic and Pacific coast in our quest to learn as much as we could about the gourmet coffee business. We wanted to research the best of the best to learn about the competition for our gourmet coffee concept Octane Coffee.

There are really 2 core things I look for to define what is a “gourmet” coffee business as opposed to a Starbucks or neighborhood shop.

Roasting – to be a real player in the gourmet space you need to be roasting your own beans. Preferably on site. Obviously for some of the NYC shops it’s not viable to be on site in NYC but they do all of their own roasting.

Pourover –Pourover (or chemex) is an essential piece of any gourmet coffee shop.  French press is nice and should also be a staple, but you can’t truly bring out the flavors of the beans without using a pourover. This in my mind is the single biggest differentiator in the space.

We also spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of bakery and pastries were offered. We are still determining the best strategy for Octane’s pastries and wanted to see what the competition was up to.

In store retail displays are also a big thing we looked at – the art of display cases and in store retail is something we want to learn more about.

While Mike and John Michael journeyed to San Francisco to scout Four Barrel and Sight Glass, I ventured to New York City to check out Stumptown, Grumpy, and Gimme. I’m just going to run through each concept and show design, layout, and what we thought.  There are a lot of photos in this report, mostly taken with my grainy iPhone 3, so don’t except miracles with the photo quality.

First up… NYC

gimme! coffee


  • Roaster – Yes
  • Pourover – Yes
  • Bakery – Local Source 

I visited the gimme coffee location on Mott Street in New York’s East Village. The store itself was relatively small and standing room only (typical for New York City) and was very busy on Saturday morning.  Gimme is a roaster in addition to being a coffee shop so they also had various bags of coffee for sale.  They served 2 basic coffees from urns and several different pourovers. All of their baked goods were sourced from a local baker named “This Girl Bakes.”


gimme! also did a great job explaining how much effort they go to in order to source local fresh coffee beans. Above the condiment station there was a poster telling stories of their visits to South America.

Cafe Grumpy


  • Roaster – Yes
  • Pourover – Yes
  • Bakery – Self / Commissary

I visited two different Cafe Grumpy locations in Manhattan. The first was a standing room only little shop right at the bottom of the Lower East Side. The entire store was staffed with one employee running coffee, pastries, and espresso. This was at roughly 9am on a Friday morning.  The barista said that this location was relatively new and never got super busy. This small setup might be a footprint to think about for a small scale Octane in specific sites or locations (similar to our existing Octane Pocket Bar).

Bakery case / left side of the front counter. Note the iPad POS system running “Square” app as their POS system.  You can also see their “every 10th coffee free” card.

All of Cafe Grumpy’s pastries are commissaried and baked in their bakery location – shipped to the stores each morning.  This location happened to be right next to the bakery itself. The bakery wasn’t open but I did take a photo of their sign.

I also visited Cafe Grumpy’s location in Chelsea. This was a larger footprint with seating room, but still a relatively tight space. The picture is a bit blurry but this is the largest shot I could get of the shop.

The retail space was actually on the very back wall, a bit away from the counter or anything else. It’s behind me in the first picture where you can clearly see I’m several feet back from the counter.

One side note – the Chelsea location had a NO LAPTOPS policy – the manager came over and told me to put my laptop away about 2 minutes after I opened it. Personally huge turnoff for me, I am not sure how well that would work outside of New York City where space is very tight.

Stumptown Coffee


  • Roaster – Yes
  • Pourover – Yes
  • Bakery – Local Source

I went into this trip with very little knowledge of any of the shops I visited and no preconceived notions about which was the best. Stumptown really crushed the competition in my mind. Hands down best place I visited for a variety of reasons. Their coffee was on another level compared to Grumpy and Gimme. It was one of the best cups of coffee I have ever had.

Their location (while rather unique) was unbelievable. The bar itself was standing room only (with a long railing looking out a window on the far wall) but the entire bar is connected to the lobby of the Ace Hotel. Inside the lobby there are dozens of people camped out on tables with power outlets and people relaxing in comfortable chairs. Mixed in with the tourists filtering in and out of the lobby really created a unique atmosphere.

Stumptown’s bakery case was filled with local pastries from several well known bakeries in Manhattan, including Momofuku Milk Bar and the Breslin. The bakery case itself was imbedded in the counter between the two registers.

Stumptown also had one of the most creative uses of their Retail Space – putting it directly above the condiment bar.

What about the West Coast? Check out part 2 of our journey right here.

Hope you enjoyed – let us know what you think in the comments and on Twitter.

Five Lessons We Learned Spying on Denver’s Top Fast Casual Concepts

This is the last piece on Fresh Hospitality’s scouting trip to Denver  – I will wrap up the major lessons from our trip and go over what we learned.

Our trip to Denver provided Fresh Hospitality with a wealth of information and ideas not only about our competition but also ways we can improve our own concepts. The Denver trip was a whirlwind of activity – we visited a ton of restaurants and scoped out a lot of potential real estate for new businesses in the Denver area.  While we ultimately visited over 15 restaurants in Denver (admittedly not all fast casual) – these lessons are from what we considered the strongest competitors.

Here is a quick summary of the major takeaways from our trip.

  • Focus on Fresh, Healthy, Local Food – a number of our competitors are very “in your face” about how fresh and healthy their food is – to the point of having the words literally plastered all over the walls in giant font
  • Fresh Baked Pita – a theme we saw at Roti also – Garbanzo has fresh baked pita coming out right in front of the customers eyes – it’s hard to go wrong showing the customer how fresh and scratch made your food is
  • Free Food Samples – giving away fresh and healthy food samples to customers not only lets them sample new and exciting menu items but also drives home the message of the foods freshness
  • Excellent Use of Awkward Interior Spaces – we saw some great examples of innovative design using cramped interior spaces (specifically at Tokyo Joe’s)
  • Effective use of In Store Micro-Brewery – really cool concept of creating an in store micro -brewery and something we might look at for some of our concepts

Denver is a strong market for Fast Casual concepts (and the birthplace of Fast Casual itself) and there are a number of major areas in Denver that would be great locations for the expansion of all of Fresh’s concepts.  As always it was a great learning experience and really helped us think about how we are going to move some of our concepts forward.

Let me know what you think about these lessons and stay tuned here and on Twitter to keep up with Fresh Hospitality’s adventures.

To read the rest of our trip report from Denver click the below links.

Part 1 – Garbanzo

Part 2 – Tokyo Joes

Part 3 – Marketing Secrets

Part 4 – Build Your Own Brewery 

Marketing Lessons From Denver’s Top Fast Casual Chains

This is the third post in a series about Fresh Hospitality’s latest trip to Denver, Colorado to scout out some big competitor and learn more about them. These are just the raw facts and our thoughts from the trip – hope you enjoy. (Find Part One and  Part Two here)

Now that I’ve reviewed the two major fast casual concepts we wanted to visit – I am going to share a few of the key lessons from our visit.

Lesson #1: Telling The Customer Your Food is FRESH, HEALTHY, and LOCAL

Every concept we visited was very forward and upfront about telling the customers how fresh, local, and healthy their food was. Signs, posters, and even entire walls were dedicated to this. These concepts really drilled home how fresh and healthy their food was.

I think this is something that we could do a better job of at Tazikis and our other fast casual concepts – we all know the food is healthy but we don’t tell the customers -we just assume they know it too but even a simple slogan like “No Freezers, No Fries – Always Fresh & Healthy” somewhere in line or near the front of the restaurant could help establish this in the customers mind. We saw signs like this at nearly every competitor.

Garbanzo had a huge focus on this – when you are standing in line they have an entire wall talking about how fresh and healthy the food is.

“Compromise is a bad word” is the slogan Garbanzo used on their wall:

Garbanzo also featured posters ALL over their walls alternating between the words “Fresh” and “Healthy” with paragraph descriptions about Garbanzo’s food.

The focus on healthy messaging to consumers is really a reflection of consumers continued shift towards healthier brands and making healthy choices. I think concepts that do a good job communicating a healthy message to their consumers are going to have a significant edge over brands that don’t focus on it. Tokyo Joes had a similar focus – right when you walk in the door there is a sign talking about how healthy, fresh, and local their food is.

We also stopped by Brothers BBQ in Denver – a locally owned Chain with ~10 locations that is considered by many to be the best BBQ in Denver. The food was pretty underwhelming, they do not cook anything on site and they commissary the BBQ in each day from a central location where they cook it. The only thing on site were fryers and some heating units.

One thing we really liked that they did do – they were selling t-shirts that had the following logo on them. This could be something to consider in Alabama for our brands – “Family owned and Alabama grown.”

Wanna see the next big takeaway from our Denver visit? Find part four of our scouting trip right here.

Let me know what you think about these lessons and stay tuned here and on Twitter to keep up with Fresh Hospitality’s adventures.