Fast casual needs help, stat

Leaders convene in Charlotte to consider their options

Thus far in The Food Section, I’ve written about independent restaurants, plain and fancy. But with Americans yearly spending close to $50 billion in fast casual restaurants, it would be silly to ignore chains when reporting on how and where people across the South eat. So when I learned fast casual brand officers were getting together in Charlotte, I registered to join them.

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After asking everyone to stand up, a Fast Casual Executive Summit speaker asked those who closed multiple locations during the pandemic to sit down.

The rules have changed, speaker after speaker at last week’s Fast Casual Executive Summit in Charlotte, North Carolina told hundreds of attendees determined to sell more gussied-up burgers, chicken sandwiches, and customized pasta bowls.

At previous editions of the annual conference, now in its sixteenth year, chain restaurant honchos from across the country learned how to bulk up their bottom lines through expansion. But that’s no longer in the cards for most restaurants classified as fast casual, best defined as fast food with fresher ingredients, higher prices and hipper marketing.

It’s OK if you didn’t open any new locations last year, presenters reassured operators dazed by the pandemic shift in dining habits and shaken by hiring woes. Heck, it’s even alright if you closed a couple of stores, they said: In the category represented by one out of every five new U.S. restaurants, success is measured by mere survival rather than number of units.

That hasn’t stopped Clean Juice from racking them up, though.

“We have more than 108 units now in the brand of Clean Juice,” Landon Eckles, co-founder of the five-year-old Charlotte company which peddles pressed organic fruit in Scripture-laced cups, announced from the event stage. “It’s amazing just to see the energy and the happiness and the excitement!”

Eckles’ chipper presentation couldn’t quite cut through the persistent gloom of the room. “I still can’t believe they put the infectious disease guy on during lunch,” a point-of-sales dealer grumbled later as he glanced up from his meatless chicken Parmesan sandwich to catch a PowerPoint slide illustrating how ultraviolet germicidal lamps developed for war can wipe out viruses.

Yet even if the crowd nursed doubts about the capital and Christian values seemingly required to follow in the Eckles’ steps, Clean Juice’s approach -- which has won over Tim Tebow’s spokesman services -- perfectly sums up the forecasted future of the fast casual dining sector.

Rather than pitch new acai bowl flavors or discounts available at specified times, Clean Juice emphasizes the lifestyle to which its devotees belong. Much like fitness phenomena CrossFit, SoulCycle or Peloton, Clean Juice makes a big deal about its customers’ and employees’ shared mindset.

“As cliché as it might sound, what helps is we’re all speaking the same language,” Clean Juice vice president Kim Juda told me. “Community is built when people are like-minded.”

Also in the spirit of those obsession-sparking workout programs: Clean Juice stresses branded merch and encourages frequent visits.

(I confirmed this when I walked over to the Clean Juice nearest The Westin where the conference was held: Having never set foot in a Clean Juice, I wanted to see how it worked. The first thing that the nice young man behind the cash register said was, “Are you already using our app?”)

All the allusions to customers retreating to the safety of a trusted restaurant brand and making it central to their identities left me thinking that the fast casual rescue plan was sounding a little cult-y. I figured I was being hyperbolic until one of the featured speakers addressed the term directly.  

“The word ‘cult’ is bad: I totally get it,” said Kathleen Wood, a Chicago-based business consultant with a pixie cut and peppy demeanor of a high school guidance counselor known to all as ‘Mrs. W.’

Still, Wood advised the audience to embrace “Clarity, Unity, Leadership and Team.” Not surprisingly, she loved Eckles’ overview of Clean Juice.

Wood and other experts see tremendous profit potential in stoking an inner circle mentality, in which a chain’s most ardent patrons are granted access to dedicated drive-thru lanes; consulted on menu developments; assigned pickup lockers and invited to text back-and-forth with restaurant representatives (or the bots they program.)

In other words, the new marker of success for Chipotle wannabes is an elaborate loyalty program with tens of thousands of registrants. What they have in mind is each American picking a fast casual restaurant chain in the way they might declare allegiance to a sports team, down to the bobbleheads they display on their desks.

From an enthusiastic eater’s perspective, though, I’m not sure that rates as a victory.

Among the small fast casual companies represented at the Summit were a restaurant serving antibiotic-free soul food; a ghost kitchen churning out steamed buns; a shawarma grill and an Indian curry house. While it’s easy to mock the sped-up versions of traditional dishes that fast casual restaurants typically offer, I still like the idea of time-crunched customers finding stimulation in diversity instead of solace in the known.    

Prior to the pandemic, a car dashboard button set to place the standard drive-thru order associated with a rewards program number – an as-yet unrealized dream articulated by several Summit attendees – wasn’t on most restaurants’ wish lists. Zach Goldstein, founder of a customer rewards platform, described the average fast casual restaurant as pinning revenue projections on “great food; a differentiated brand and good enough service.”

That’s essentially the operating principle of JJ’s Red Hots, one of the Charlotte fast casual restaurants that conference attendees visited on a citywide eating tour before the official start of the Summit. Between stops, tourgoers talked shop: If the speech bubbles on the charter bus converged in a giant word cloud, “concept” and “marketing” would stand out. 

At JJ’s, the concept is Buffalo-style hot dogs and the marketing revolves around daily specials, including $3 Hot Dog Tuesdays and Kids Eat Free Wednesdays, which coincides with Half Off Wine Wednesdays.

“Hello, Moms!” one impressed attendee cried out when general manager Jason Summerour ticked off the schedule.

“Not going to lie,” Summerour said. “It was directed at a certain group of people.”

Within six years of its 2012 opening, JJ’s had sold 1 million hot dogs, a number which still stuns Summerour. “That’s a lot,” he told a group snacking on JJ’s chili cheese dog segments, repeating in a voice almost only he could hear, “We’ve sold a million hot dogs.”

While an appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives helped boost JJ’s name recognition, Summerour attributes the chain’s past success in part to its celebratory events, large and small, and its kitchen’s creativity: The restaurant is forever coming up with goofy hot dog toppings, such as peanut butter, tater tots and hardboiled eggs.

Now, though, unpredictable social gatherings and unfamiliar food are a tough sell.

Apparently, that doesn’t daunt John Maikke.

A longtime Atlantan, Maikke had entered the Summit’s Shark Tank-style funding competition with his business plan for a restaurant called Asian John’s; he was up against a smoked chicken chain created by a Ted’s Montana Grill alum; a Minot, North Dakota hoagie parlor and a halal gourmet burger joint for the $3,500 prize, which was still under consideration at press time

Although his restaurant doesn’t yet exist, Maikke already has renderings showing Asian John’s in shopping mall food courts and on the Vegas strip.

“When I’m in the pool hall, they’ve been calling me Asian John,” Maikke, a limo company owner who plays at the championship level, said of his company’s genesis. “I hate it: It’s like White Bob or Black Jerome.”

But Maikke couldn’t shake the name, which crudely referenced his mother’s Korean heritage. It stuck to him so steadfastly that his inner entrepreneur finally began to wonder if it might have monetary value, a mental exercise which led him to restaurants.

“What do you think of when you hear Papa John’s?” he asked me, sighing in disappointment when I brought up politics: I was supposed to say ‘pizza.’

“Long John Silver’s? Jimmy John’s?” Maikke continued. “I’m Asian John!”

Americans are so accustomed to ordering comfort food from anonymous Johns, Maikke said, “that when I ask people: ‘Have you heard of Asian John’s?’ They say, ‘I’ve already eaten there.’ Swear to God! That’s the secret sauce here.”

As for what Asian John’s will serve, Maikke has secured the domain name koreanbarbecue.com, which he believes is the ticket to bringing middle America around to soy-marinated meat. But he anticipates Asian John’s will be such a hit that he’ll eventually open Asian John’s sushi bars, Asian John’s noodle houses and Asian John’s hibachi grills. Fran Tarkenton has signed on as a spokesman.

On his website, Maikke sells a memoir detailing his rise to the top of the fast casual world. He hasn’t written it yet because he’s still living it: Winning the Fast Casual Executive Summit funding competition is the topic of Chapter Four.

For all the talk of brand communities and loyalty programs, confidence and charisma—and the international cuisines they can help push forward---may still have a place in the fast casual landscape.

Granted, it’s hard to summon either in the shadow of COVID-19. Following the keynote address by two high-ranking Panera Bread execs, a tired-looking Philadelphian seated near me waved off the enthusiastic chatter about grilled mac-and-cheese sandwiches, saying, “I just want to know if restaurants are ever coming back.” But Summit attendees seemed to take heart in those brash, old-school qualities when they saw them.

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On the second night of the Summit, dinner was served at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The party started with mashed potato parfaits on the main floor, then moved up to the second floor for a dessert buffet. At a high-top table positioned alongside the museum’s Pit Crew Challenge, where fast casual executives were frantically trying to put the wheels back on ersatz racecars, a guy in the customer texting business struck up conversation with another Summiteer:

“Did you get to meet Asian John?”