How Fast-Casual Restaurants Can Help Change Industry Culture
The model’s infrastructure is conducive to improving workplace culture, wages, and work-life balanceLayla Khoury-Hanold
August 11, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the restaurant industry, permanently shuttering 17 percent of restaurants nationwide, and revealing inequities and vulnerabilities baked into the foundations of these businesses. But there is hope on the horizon, as vaccines roll out and more food professionals are immunized. At the James Beard Foundation, we’re looking forward with optimism, while also striving to provide resources and tools to help the industry recover and rebuild with equity and sustainability at its heart.
Below, Layla Khoury-Hanold examines the growing fast-casual restaurant scene and how its business model could spell a better industry for all.
Foo Fighters blasts from the speakers as a pitmaster carts a brisket through the dining room. A prep cook runs a platter to one table and busses another, while a cashier fetches ice for the bar. At the end of service, the tip pool is evenly distributed. This is Soulbelly BBQ, a Las Vegas fast-casual barbecue joint from James Beard Award-nominated chef/owner Bruce Kalman. It’s a switch from his usual fine-dining Italian, and the laid-back vibe is a departure from the kitchens he came up in.
Fast-casual restaurants are defined by counter-service and fast execution, but with a chef’s touch and higher-quality ingredients. In the U.S., the fast-casual restaurant market is expected to grow by $35 billion from 2020-20241, driven by demand for innovative menus and on-the-go food. In the wake of a global pandemic that shuttered 110,000 restaurants2, the hospitality industry is realizing the fragility of a business model that banks on reservations. Fast-casual concepts are ripe for chef innovation and, with lower barriers to entry, potential scalability, and more diverse revenue streams, the model is good not only for the bottom line, but for employees, too.
As the industry continues to feel the labor shortage squeeze—in June, employment at eating and drinking establishments was still 1.3 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels3—chef/owners are realizing that employees are demanding more. Fair compensation, yes, but also a workplace environment in which they feel respected and positively motivated. Chef/owners in the fast-casual space are exploring how fast casual facilitates improved workplace culture, wage structure, employment opportunities, and work-life balance.
With ‘casual’ in the name, the model suggests a more low-stakes environment. This frees up headspace to consider ways to make employees feel safe and happy, starting with establishing a more equitable, positive workplace. With a streamlined menu of standardized dishes, fast-casual doesn’t require a brigade system, eliminating the power dynamic endemic to that hierarchy. “It’s taken time for me to realize that this is a people business before a food business. Taking care of staff is part of that,” Kalman says. “I’m not blowing up at people because something’s not right.”
“It’s sad that, in hospitality, a place you don’t dread coming to work is considered a pretty good gig,” says Eli Sussman, the James Beard Award-nominated co-owner of Samesa, a fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant in Manhattan. Abolishing the toxic, ego-driven environment of yore is essential to building an improved workplace culture, as is addressing the back- and front-of-house divide. “When you’ve got your front-of-house and back-of-house siloed and they don’t truly understand what the other does, it can breed animosity,” Sussman says.
Cross-training, a common fast-casual practice, virtually dissolves that divide. Plus, many fast-casual spots have open kitchens, putting everyone into customer-facing service mode. Botiwalla, a fast-casual Indian street food grill in Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, has both. “It creates a cultural shift—everyone is front of house,” says Meherwan Irani, the James Beard Award-nominated chef/owner of Chai Pani Restaurant Group, which owns Botiwalla. “If staff are cross-trained, the register person should have no problem helping the grill person who’s in the weeds. We want specialization of roles, but we want everyone to do everything.”
Besides creating a more unified work environment, cross-training keeps employees stimulated and facilitates developing a broader skillset, which helps reduce burnout and creates additional employment opportunities. Cross-training also permits consistent yet flexible scheduling, which is key to cultivating a work-life balance that’s harder to achieve in fine dining. “We work the same amount of hours every week,” says Tiffany Derry, chef/owner of Roots Chicken Shak in Austin and Plano, Texas. “We’re not looking at covers so it’s not a moving target. Everyone is cross-trained, so it’s not a big deal to take a vacation.”
Another way the fast-casual model is building better employment sustainability is through tip pooling, in which hourly employees receive an equal share of tips. Besides augmenting employees’ pay, restaurant owners find that tip pooling fosters collaboration. Ashley Christensen, the James Beard Award–winning chef/owner of Ashley Christensen Restaurants in Raleigh, North Carolina, first piloted the model at Poole’side Pies in 2019, and observed increased employee camaraderie and job satisfaction. She plans to implement tip pooling at her fast-casual debut, BB’s Crispy Chicken. “I love the idea that every [hourly employee] who had a role in that restaurant should feel the fruits of that shared labor,” Christensen says.
Even if the chef-driven fast-casual concept reflects culinary creativity, chefs still must devise a product that can be reproduced by any employee. When Christensen developed BB’s Crispy Chicken’s signature sandwich, she asked, “How can I make this delicious and be totally achievable to someone who has never cooked before?” This approach not only standardizes the dish, but it helps broaden employment prospects for workers interested in cooking but lacking formal training. Culinary school tuition averages $30,0004; even with financial aid, low-paying entry-level jobs don’t justify the debt incurred.
Besides scalability, fast-casual concepts are conducive to diverse revenue streams: branded merchandise; consumer packaged goods, like Soulbelly’s barbecue sauces or Roots Chicken Shak’s Creole seasoning blends; catering, which has a higher profit margin; and national retail platforms like Goldbelly. Diverse revenue streams generate more financial security, but also the means to reinvest in staff and local communities. Irani started offering health insurance and paid time off in 2015 when he opened Botiwalla and Buxton Hall Barbecue. During monthly Give Back Wednesdays, employees choose a local organization to support, like sponsoring a kids’ 5K or cooking a 400-person community dinner.
It’s an important reflection of how, although restaurants serve their community, they must first show up for their staff. The fast-casual model, with its varied revenue streams and capacity for improved workplace culture and wages, suggests a more sustainable framework in which to do so. Derry sums it up: “People moving from traditional restaurants are understanding [the idea that] ‘I can do something that is less formal, I can have fun in the kitchen creating recipes and multiple concepts, and I can create a better balance for myself and my employees.’”
Layla Khoury-Hanold is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on Food Network, Saveur, and Refinery29, and in the Chicago Tribune. Follow her on Instagram @words_with_layla or on Twitter @words_withlayla.
- Data summarized from Technavio Research: “The fast casual restaurants market size in US is set to grow by USD 35.01 billion accelerating at a CAGR of almost 8%, during the period spanning over 2020-2024. One of the key factors driving growth is the demand for innovation and customization in food menus. The demand for new flavors and combination food infused with premium flavors is on the rise in the US. Changing lifestyles and a rise in demand for on-the-go food is a significant trend that will further stimulate market growth. The rise in the number of dual-income families and busy lifestyles have increased the preference for on-the-go food among consumers.”
- National Restaurant Association: Restaurant Industry Facts at a Glance: 110,000: Restaurant locations that are temporarily or permanently closed.
- Data cited from the National Restaurant Association’s June employment news release culled from data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: “June was the sixth consecutive month of staffing growth, which translated to an increase of more than 1 million jobs during the first half of 2021. Despite the steady gains, eating and drinking places were still nearly 1.3 million jobs – or 10% – below pre-pandemic employment levels.
- How Much Does Culinary School Cost? “In addition to traditionally high tuition rates, the costs of culinary schools are also rapidly rising. Currently, culinary school tuition typically costs over $30,000. That’s a steep price for most students to consider, and one that will force many students to utilize financial aid.”