The finest food, fast: Q&A with Pat Peterson, Beefsteak

More fine-dining chefs continue to open fast casual concepts as an alternative revenue stream. For these “fast fine” concepts, volume and attracting a wider range of diners is important, as prices tend to hover in the more affordable range, if not slightly higher than major chains. Amelia Levin spoke with Pat Peterson, executive chef of Beefsteak, which operates five restaurants in the Washington, DC. area and Philadelphia, to discover more.

Can you give me a brief overview of the Beefsteak concept?
Beefsteak is the first fast casual concept by world-renowned chef José Andrés, where farm-fresh, market-driven vegetables take center stage to create hearty meals packed with flavour and nutrition. To fuel busy lifestyles and the growing desire to eat well, the affordable and accessible eatery executes good food, fast. Guests are invited to select one of our composed bowls or customise their own, with myriad options. Salads, soups and sandwiches created to highlight the season’s best round out the offerings. All prepared in front of you.

Why do you feel fast casual is trending now?
I would say the reason is that people now know they can get a great-tasting meal fast. They no longer have to settle for the old, cheap fast-food model.

Why is this a good opportunity for fine-dining chefs?
Reach. Our mission is to change the world through the power of food. In fast casual, grown to scale, we can feed a million people a week. Another big piece of it is that guests going into any fast casual have four factors driving their decisions: price, quality, speed and something that’s good for you. In most of the segment, you can find two of those. Beefsteak, using the skills of a chef-driven brand, is one of the rare places where you get all four. That is the future of dining.

What are the key considerations before transitioning to fast casual?
We just needed to figure out how to express our craft in a $9 bowl that is truly unique in a heavily saturated segment. Speed is also a huge factor – you have to have a design and operations team who understand that milliseconds and millimeters make all the difference in kitchen design and flow, which drives experience.

What are the staff needs and training considerations?
Operating in this segment puts you into a much wider labor pool, which is great. However, they are less experienced than those you would bring into a full-service fine-dining brand. It’s important to keep things simple where you can with good design. Only invest your complexities in procedure and recipe when you’re certain there is a pay off in quality. Finally, you have to build a training system that can bring someone with little experience to see and execute quality day in and day out.

How do you develop the menu and pricing to work for fast casual?
A bit of trial and error, if I’m honest. We started by picking a price point and an “anything goes” selection process, because we wanted a clean read on what people wanted. We were surprised to discover most people customise rather than buying something we composed for them. But we learned that customisable is very valuable to the consumer. Then, as we fine-tuned the financial model, we started experimenting with what people are willing to pay extra for, what has incremental value perception and what doesn’t. But overall it’s important to know where you want the check average to be.

How do you set up the flow of ordering/service/payment?
Transparency to us was key – we never wanted the customer’s meal to leave their sight. We also wanted them to see it made fresh, so a lot of time-saving pre-cooking was out. But we studied other fast casuals for speed and set a time goal from first-team interaction at our harvest station to the cashier saying: “Thanks so much for coming.”

How do you cater to a younger, fast-casual-seeking crowd?
A huge part of what they want is experience. Our atmosphere is lively and playful. They also want food with a story and clean labels, and no surprises. But really it comes down to choices: if you want to eat vegan, we have a delicious meal for you. If you don’t, the chicken sausage is awesome.

Amelia Levin

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