At the National Restaurant Association Fast Casual Trends & Directions event, Ross Kamens, founder and principal of revolutionary flavors LLC, led a panel of menu-minded executives to discuss topics ranging from what drives their brands’ menus to operational efficiencies. Panelists were:
- Marley Hodgson, co-founder and CEO of Mad Greens, who describes his concept as better-for-you—not just healthy, but fresh, transparent and fun.
- Geoff Gaskin, senior vice president of global marketing, Beautiful Brands International, franchise owner of brands including Camille’s Sidewalk Café and Freshberry, and franchise developer of several other fast-casual concepts. He sums up the company’s philosophy as, “eat, relax, enjoy.”
- Sean Kennedy, president and chief operating officer, Cowboy Chicken, a Dallas-based concept founded in 1981 using wood fire to cook all-natural hormone-free chicken.
- David Prows, executive chef, Blue Lemon, which he describes as “fast fine,” using natural whole foods, prepared simply.
Kamens laid out the guiding principles for Noodles & Company, whose menu he created. One is broad appeal, putting flavor first, balancing healthy and indulgent items, and offering variety. The second is operational ease. “Do a few things right,” he emphasized, noting that requires the right equipment and kitchen flow. The third principle is superior economics, with a goal of sourcing better goods for less money, and constantly evaluating those goods.
Kennedy emphasized connecting with customers. “At some point, lunch or dinner becomes a commodity,” he says. Cowboy Chicken aims to engage with guests, even if it’s just to look them in the eye and thank them for coming.
Hodgson agreed that the simplicity factor is important. “You want to stay true to your promise, so you have to make sure your promise isn’t too big.”
It’s All About the Food
Prows suggested that the intersection of appeal, operations and economics must be with the food. “What’s so compelling about fast casual is that the food is so good, it looks good, it smells good,” he said.
Gaskin shared plans for the company’s new MyCamille’s concept, a smaller iteration of its Camille’s Sidewalk Café. Beautiful Brands is taking the freshness aspect and moving it front and center with an open kitchen and smaller menu. “It is more important to focus on the service side,” he said. “We need to instill passion, educate them on the food, make sure the staff is engaged in what we’re doing.”
High-Tech for High-Touch
Prows pointed to an opportunity to use technology to enhance the customer experience. At Blue Lemon, customers are given a pager when they order. It is not for them to be notified when to pick up their food; it is for the server to be able to quickly locate them to deliver it. Without having to scan the dining room for order numbers, staff can deliver food more quickly, saving time and maintaining temperatures.