“Fast casual is revolutionizing the restaurant industry.”
That’s what Jim Biafore, Director of Operations for Jose Andres’ fast-casual concept Beefsteak, told us when we asked about the growing popularity of this segment of the restaurant industry. With restaurateurs like Danny Meyer and Daniel Patterson growing their businesses to include fast-casual in addition to fine-dining restaurants, there’s a new focus on concepts that can deliver high-quality food quickly at a low price point — without compromising on the guest experience.
At Beefsteak, fresh vegetables are the main event, piled in bowls with hearty grains, sauces, toppings and (if you like) meat or protein. Guests choose whatever vegetables they like, which are cooked to order and composed into the final dish. It’s a winning recipe for savvy consumers looking for a quick, healthy meal that won’t break the bank.
Jim sees fast casual as the way of the future, ultimately replacing both fast food and middle- to lower-end casual restaurants. He shared with us the vision behind Beefsteak — which is on the hunt for new locations in Washington D.C. and beyond — and a few ways his team has found success in the space.
Keep concepts flexible & inclusive
Beefsteak is described as a “fast casual, fresh vegetable” concept. It is not described as vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free, although so many items on the menu fit those descriptions that they stopped labeling them (instead, they label the foods that do contain gluten).
The point is that there’s meat for those that want meat and raw options for those who want to eat raw. “Healthy” isn’t even part of the restaurant’s promise, although the majority of the ingredients are undeniably nutritious. Plus, the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner,and you can even have a glass of wine or a beer with your meal. There’s truly something for everyone.
Jim says their business model is split 60/40 between lunch and dinner, and the mix of customers is similar to what they see in their full-service restaurants. “The thing that I think attracts people to our concepts is quality, through and through. We have the best possible vegetables that we can find.”
Unlike many fast-casual restaurants that cook food ahead and keep it hot, ready to serve, everything at Beefsteak starts with fresh vegetables. The team developed a technique to cook any vegetable in 90 seconds, so guests can advance down the counter, choosing their ingredients, at the same time the cooks prepare the vegetables and build the bowl. By the time they reach the cash register, the meal is ready.
Thus, there’s no table service. There’s no one hunting down guests with numbers on their tables, and guests aren’t coming up front with buzzing pagers. The whole ordering process takes three to three-and-a-half minutes, says Jim.
“As long as you maintain quality and you’re putting out a good product, it really comes down to the flow of the execution,” says Jim. ” You can have a great lunch in our restaurant for about $8. In our full-service restaurants that’s certainly not the case. That will tell you really the volume of business that you have to bring in to make it a viable concept.”
As many as 1,000 guests come to Beefsteak every day, which Jim credits primarily to Jose Andres’ PR power, social media, and word of mouth.
Take advantage of shared resources
Beefsteak is part of Jose Andres’ Think Food Group, which also operates high-end restaurants such as Minibar, The Bazaar and Tres. Ultimately Beefsteak aims to be a standalone business and grow to create its own, independent business structure, but for now Jim and his team are taking advantage of the resources Think Food Group offers them.
Departments like Human Resources and Accounting are obviously shared between restaurants, but so is the entire R&D process, which is key at a new, ever-evolving concept like Beefsteak. And a big priority for Jim is giving his employees career paths and new roles to grow into. A typical Beefsteak restaurant has between 35 and 40 team members, three of which are managers.
“We see the value in growing,” he says. “I’ve got folks, from a cashier to our general managers, who are looking for the next big thing in their career. We want to give them a company they can grow with.”
Don’t ignore the guest experience
In a fast-casual restaurant, staff members interact with guests for a much shorter period of time than they do in a full-service restaurant. Still, those interactions are critical: greeting guests with a smile, answering questions, and generally being nice.
That’s why Jim focuses on building a great company culture in which employees are encouraged to engage and interact, but never forced to follow a manufactured script. And even though the service is fast, interactions with guests don’t need to be rushed.
“There’s no reason to say that just because you’re only standing in front of that guest for 10 seconds that you can’t be nice, make eye contact, smile. Consistency is what we train our team members on. They understand what we’re trying to build and they want to be a part of that success, and ideally we give them the opportunities to be a part.”
Control costs & protect your margins
When you’re purchasing high-quality ingredients like fresh, seasonal vegetables and selling them at a low price point, you have to control your costs. To manage margins, Jim’s team looks for ways to drive business, including operating as a zero-trash restaurant.
“We compost or recycle everything,” he says. “Eliminating even the compost that we’re generating now is that next step forward. We trim margins in any number of ways, and that helps us save on our food cost, which allows us to deliver that great food at a low price point.”
That’s also where the R&D team comes in, getting creative with how they can use every bit of an item. Right now, they’re juicing vegetable scraps to go into their juice products.
“Cheaper is not always the best answer when you have quality that sets you apart,” he adds. “At the same time, we deliver a great product for probably about the same or even less than you’d find at a typical fast food restaurant. You have quality ingredients, you’ve got a great dining experience, all for under $10. That’s where the magic really happens.”
Photo Credit: Jeff Martin