Why Fast Casual Is Not The Future Of The Restaurant Business

A new breed of restaurant is fast approaching on the horizon and starting to catch people’s attention. These concepts buck the traditional fast casual model in so many ways that it’s time to create a name for this new segment.

Who are the market leaders in Fast Casual? Despite all the up and comers, three stand apart as the dominant players in the space. Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Five Guys. These three goliaths dominate the market and the consumer’s mindshare when it comes to fast casual, the same way McDonald’s does for QSR.

I’ve heard people at restaurant industry conferences occasionally say things like “fast casual plus” or “premium fast casual” to try and describe this emerging market – but that doesn’t go far enough to capture it’s essence.

I’m officially drawing a line in the sand and calling this new segment FRESH CASUAL. Like Fast Casual before it, which sits definitively closer to the QSR side on the spectrum between QSR and Casual Dining, Fresh Casual sits on the same spectrum – but definitively closer to the casual or in some cases even fine dining side.

In essence, Fast Casual is casual dining quality food served in a QSR environment. Fresh Casual is a full casual dining experience with a limited (usually QSR) service model.

This may seem trivial at first, but the gulf between “Fast Casual” concepts and “Fresh Casual” competitors in the same exact space is so wide that it can no longer be ignored.

Here is how Fast Casual and Fresh Casual stack up on the MAJOR differences in market point (these are general categorizations and I realize that not every restaurant fits each definition perfectly).


Fast Casual – Customer driven menu. Most commonly featuring a “build your own” style menu where customers choose their protein, starch and flavor.

Fresh Casual – Chef driven menu. The menu is designed by a chef or culinary team to have specific dishes and flavor profiles. Often the menu is designed by a corporate chef and then executed by a kitchen staff in store.

Service Model

Fast Casual – Fast Casual differs little from the QSR service model – having customers order at a counter  and pick their food up there.

Fresh Casual – Fresh Casual retains counter ordering but then adds an additional layer of service –  running food to customers, refilling drinks, and bussing tables.  Once a customer orders at the counter, the rest of their service experience takes place at the table.

Décor & Design

Fast Casual – differs little from a traditional QSR design & décor, very sparse clean interiors, often with promotional materials and posters on the walls.

Fresh Casual – mimics a casual dining interior. Focus on higher quality furniture and fixtures as well as art and artifacts in store to create a relaxing and comfortable atmosphere.

Food Quality

Fast Casual – delivers higher quality than QSR, but still sometimes reheating and using frozen product. Prep and cooking is usually as simplified as possible

Fresh Casual – delivers food consistent with top quality casual or fine dining, often fresh and locally sourced and rarely frozen. More complex prep and cooking is required to deliver a higher quality of food


Fast Casual – served with traditional QSR paper and disposable service ware

Fresh Casual – served on plateware and with glass (excluding to-go orders) similar to casual dining

Price Point

The price point is the same for both market segments – $8-12 dollars per meal.


The square footage, which obviously varies between concepts, is similar in both Fast and Fresh Casual. Between 1500 and 4000 sq ft in a shopping center.

Now that you’ve got a better sense of this distinction, I want to point out 6 specific examples of the restaurants with the same type of food – currently both considered “fast casual” that are a world apart.

Mexican: Xoco vs. Chipotle


If you want to see what the future of restaurants looks like – visit Rick Bayless’s Xoco in Chicago. This beast of a Mexican concept is the most stark example distinguishing Fresh Casual from Fast Casual. As soon as you walk in the door you will realize exactly what I’m talking about (read here my site report on Xoco). Xoco is just on another level compared to Chipotle, Moe’s, or the other fast casual Mexican and burrito players.  The ambiance, the food quality, the service all fit perfectly into the fresh casual mold. The open kitchen showcases the handmade breads as well as the freshly prepared torta and soup. The ambiance is warm and cozy like a sit down restaurant – and after you order from the counter the service model is indistinguishable from top level casual dining.

Asian: Pei Wei vs. Panda Express

Pei Wei, one of the older players in the space, fits the Fresh Casual mold to a tee. It is a full blown casual dining restaurant that simply begins your order at a counter. The look, the feel, the service, the food quality etc all stand apart from a Panda Express (or even Chipotle’s new entry into the market Shop House) to such a degree that you can’t help but put Pei Wei in another category all to itself.

Italian: Vapiano vs. Nooi Pasta


Vapiano is a fresh casual Italian concept that hails from Europe. Despite their counter based service model, their food quality is astounding and the ambiance is very much that of casual dining. The cooks hand make pasta daily and boil it to order, pizzas are made from scratch before your eyes. The flavors are bold and delicious and so fresh.  While Fast Casual Italian is still a very young and under-served market, the fledging competitors in the space can’t hold a candle to Vapiano in terms of food quality or ambiance. (Learn more about fast casual Italian.)

Burgers: Shake Shack vs. Five Guys


I personal think the burger space is a huge bubble right now and there are too many concepts for all of them to survive. That said, one of the survivors will almost certainly be Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack. Meyer of Setting The Table fame is one of New York’s premier restaurateurs and arguably one of the guys who kicked off the entire “better burger” craze. After building a near empire in NYC’s restaurant scene Meyer finally decide to scale one of his concepts – and he chose Shake Shack. The chef driven deliciousness of Shake Shack is a fresh casual triumph over the build-your-own burgers of Five Guys. The freshness, quality , and flavor of Shake Shack’s food creates an unquestionable gulf between the plethora of fast casual burger joints and the big boys like Shake Shack.

Bakery Cafe: Wildflower vs. Panera Bread


Wildflower is a 10,000 ton missile aiming straight for Panera. I first ate here out in Phoenix for the RLC 2012. I had heard several people hyping Wildflower up and I was convinced that there was no way it could live up to the hype. Wrong. Wildflower is a Panera with great food, a full kitchen, a much sexier ambiance, and tremendous customer service. One spicy chipotle egg sandwich or order of pancakes (oh those fluffy, fluffy pancakes) at Wildflower and you will know the difference between Fresh Casual and Fast Casual.

Mediterranean: Taziki’s vs. Garbanzo


Ok ok I know,  I put Taziki’s on the list. But at Taziki’s we set out every day to define ourselves as Fresh Casual – to bring a new and better experience to our customers. Taziki’s food is all made completely fresh every day, no freezers and no fryers in the entire store. Our entire menu is designed by our team of chefs to craft delightful, different, and delicious flavor combinations. The décor is soft and inviting like a casual dining restaurant. The service model delivers much more to the customer than a traditional counter model, food is delivered to the customer’s table, drinks are refilled, and the table is bussed for the customer. Similar players in the Mediterranean space like Garbanzo and Roti are both focused on assembly line style build your own menus, with sparse metallic interior and counter only service (essentially replicating Chipotle’s model but replacing the proteins and starches with Mediterranean ones).

See For Yourself

Words can only do this distinction so much justice. Get out in the world and see these concepts for yourself. Eat at one and then the other and you will know exactly what I’m talking about when I say that Fresh Casual is here to stay. After travelling across the country week after week and personally visiting all of these concepts, I can say hands down that Fresh Casual is real and it’s a serious force to be reckoned with.

Five Random Life Lessons From Danny Meyer

danny meyer salt shaker

As you know I’m a huge fan of Danny Meyer and everything he’s done in the hospitality business. If you’re familiar with the Salt Shaker Theory – then you will enjoy these life lessons from Danny. I love reading great books about business and entrepreneurship and Setting the Table is no exception. Here are a few of the great life lessons I took from Setting the Table.

Give First

“I would enter the restaurant business with a potent combination of my father’s entrepreneurial spirit and my grandfathers’ legacies of strong business leadership, social responsibility, and philanthropic activism. And I would have a chance to give others two things I craved: good food and warm hospitality. I had begun to understand that business and life have a lot in common with a hug. The best way to get a good one was first to give one.”

“If I want our guests to take an interest in us, I’d better take an equal interest in them.”

This is really one of the most important lessons in business and in life. Give to others first and help other people. That’s how you become a valuable resource and ultimately how you build strong relationships.

Have Fun Being Serious

“ ‘We have fun taking service seriously,’ he said. ‘And as for perfection, we just hide our mistakes better than anyone else!’ That was a refreshing insight for me as I continued to hone my own version of hospitality.”

I am a huge proponent of this. Work hard and play hard. You have to be able to have fun with what you’re doing but also be able to take it seriously. I think the way Danny phrases it is perfect – have FUN taking it seriously.

Be Respectful

“‘Leave the campsite neater than I had found it’ (That concept remains, for me, one of the most significant measures of success in business, and in life.)”

I take this quote to mean a lot of different things. Don’t be selfish, don’t be entitled, be respectful to others. It’s such a simple quote but the implications are far reaching for how you should behave in business and in life.

Make People Feel Special

“Everyone goes through life with an invisible sign hanging around his or her neck reading, “make me feel important.” Giorgio and Mary Kay had it right. The most successful people in any business that depends on human relationships are the ones who know about that invisible sign and have the vision to see how brightly it is flashing. And the true champions know best how to embrace the human being wearing the sign.”

“Ideas at their best happen for people. At their worst they happen to people.”

“Feeling seen and acknowledged is a powerful human need.”

“For most people it’s far more important to feel heard than to be agreed with.”

Not only is this absolutely one of the most important lessons in social media, but it rings so true when talking about management, leadership and really the entire hospitality industry. Many businesses have been built on this idea alone.

Know Your Identity

“It was that they had no clear idea what Eleven Madison Park represented as a dining experience. Was it a bistro or a grand restaurant? Was it inexpensive or for special occasions? Was it French? Was it a place for sandwiches, potato chips, and cookies? Until we had answered those questions for ourselves, we couldn’t avoid confusing our potential customers. Know Thyself: Before you go to market, know what you are selling and to whom. It’s a very rare business that can (or should) be all things to all people. Be the best you can be within a reasonably tight product focus. That will help you to improve yourself and help your customers to know how and when to buy your product.”

Restaurant’s live and die by their identity. The storied past of restaurant failures is often a tale of restaurants failing to ever define what they truly want to be and relentlessly defending their values.

Which quote is your favorite? Join in the convo in the comments or hit me up on Twitter

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!

Give First, Ask Questions Later

Giving is often an overlooked part of the business world. So many people are only concerned with “What’s In It For Me?” The real secret to success is to help other people first and give to them without asking for anything back.

Giving first can be a powerful act that can engender credibility and trust. When you give something away to someone without any conditions you suddenly stand out from the loud and clamoring crowd of people screaming “me me me me buy my product!”

What do I mean by giving? I’m not talking about free product samples. I mean giving information, time, or help. Offer to help someone out for free. Brainstorm ideas for other people and just offer them up without asking for anything back. Give something valuable.

Help other people become successful and help them build their careers. To paraphrase Dale Carnegie:

“You can become more successful in two months by becoming really interested in other people’s success than you can in two years trying to get other people interested in your own success.”

All the most successful bloggers follow the same strategy of giving. They give away tons of free and valuable content without asking for anything in return. Giving their blog content away loops readers in. They become more familiar with the blogger and they like their content and writing style. Maybe one day they purchase something from the blogger, maybe not.

These content creators aren’t hard selling you their products or ideas with cheesy advertising. They are becoming a valuable resource to you, a source of information and ideas. By giving away all their content for free they build credibility with their reader base. They also build relationships.

Don’t focus on “What can this person do for me?” Focus on what you can do to help them. Without asking for anything back. Giving to people first creates solid foundations for a relationship. Keith Ferrazzi writes about this in his book “Never Eat Alone:”

“Real Networking is about finding ways to make other people more successful. It was about working hard to give more than you get. … Learn to become indispensable to the people around you.”

Find a way to solve other people’s problems. That’s what selling really is at the end of the day – solving someone’s problems for them. The key to giving is that it builds a foundation for you to help people solve their problems and builds a relationship that can later be mutually beneficial for both of you.

To be successful, to create value, to build relationships – you have to give more than you get. Gary Vaynerchuck – the wildly successful social media mogul has a rule called the 80/20 rule of business. Give 80% of any relationship off the bat and watch the relationship blossom. He is comfortable giving four times as much to someone as he gets back from them because he knows that builds the foundation for real success and real relationships.

You have to be willing to take the leap first. Give something away. Don’t keep score and don’t ask for anything back.

Check out Gary’s 4 minute video on 80/20 rule right here.

James Altucher also has an awesome post on his blog about giving you can check out here.


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 

The Salt Shaker Theory – Danny Meyer’s Secret Sauce For Restaurant Management

Danny Meyer’s “Setting The Table” is one of the best books ever written on the restaurant business. An exciting read that covers not only Danny’s life but also his philosophies on business and success. One of the most remarkable ideas from Setting The Table is the “Salt Shaker Theory.”

“Your staff and your guests are always moving your saltshaker off center. That’s their job. It is the job of life. It’s the law of entropy! Until you understand that, you’re going to get pissed off every time someone moves the saltshaker off center. It is not your job to get upset.

I love the last line – “Its not your job to get upset” – its a remarkably insightful line that almost channels buddhism. Business owners and restaurant operators often struggle in the face of change and uncertainty. How should you react if your salt shaker keeps getting moved?

“Your job is just to move the shaker back each time and let them know exactly what you stand for. Let them know what excellence looks like to you. And if you’re ever willing to let them decide where the center is, then I want you to give them the keys to the store. Just give away the fuckin’ restaurant!” Wherever your center lies, know it, name it, stick to it, and believe in it. Everyone who works with you will know what matters to you and will respect and appreciate your unwavering values. Your inner beliefs about business will guide you through the tough times. It’s good to be open to fresh approaches to solving problems. But, when you cede your core values to someone else, it’s time to quit.”

The salt shaker is a powerful metaphor for one of the keys to success in the restaurant industry – maintaining high standards and core values. Change is inevitable and you will always be faced with challenges along the way. The key phrase is “let them know what excellence means to you” – this quote isn’t about never changing or never adapting – its about never wavering on your values. Danny Meyers takes this compelling parable and explains how it informs his managerial style.

“Understanding the “saltshaker theory” has helped me develop and teach a managerial style I call constant, gentle pressure. It’s the way I return the saltshaker to the center each time life moves it.

I send my managers an unequivocal message: I’m going to be extremely specific as to where every component on that tabletop belongs. I anticipate that outside forces, including you, will always conspire to change the table setting. Every time that happens, I’m going to move everything right back to the way it should be. And so should you! That’s the constant aspect. I’ll never recenter the saltshaker in a way that denies you your dignity. That’s the gentle aspect. But standards are standards, and I’m constantly watching every table and pushing back on every saltshaker that’s moved, because excellent performance is paramount. That’s the pressure. Constant, gentle pressure is my preferred technique for leadership, guidance, and coaching. It’s the job of any business owner to be very clear as to the company’s nonnegotiable core values.”

It’s such a simple analogy but I think it drives home a great point – your values define you and sticking to your standards is essential to effectively managing and leading your business.

If you enjoyed this – you might also like my post Five Random Life Lessons From Danny Meyer. He is a truly inspirational restaurateur and has so much to teach about life and the restaurant business.