Chef José Andrés seems stunned. "It's 3:30," he marvels as he walks into his latest restaurant. "And we still have a line." Last week, Andrés finally opened the doors to his much-anticipated fast-casual concept Beefsteak, serving more than 680 people at its location at Washington, DC's George Washington University. In the following days, lines continued to stretch at the James Beard Award-winning chef's first-ever fast-casual restaurant — "not stopping for one second for eight hours in a row" — with up to 800 people served during a service last week. "I can't believe we're going to go up to 900," Andrés says of Beefsteak's fast start out of the gate. "Every day, I'm like, 'Okay, tomorrow no one is coming. Tomorrow no one is coming'..."
"It's good that we are doing this ourselves; it's about time. Already, we are 20 years too late."
But for Andrés, Beefsteak's hearty numbers are just the beginning in what the chef has called his "fast good" concept, designed to bring quality food to the masses. Of course, he's not the only celebrated chef entering the fast-casual market: In the past year, fine-dining chefs like San Francisco's Joshua Skenes (Fat Noodle) and the team of Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi (Loco'l) have announced concepts with the goals of making good food more accessible. "If anybody is going to try to achieve the success of Chipotle or other companies, or change [how you want to feed America]... It's good that we are doing this ourselves; it's about time," Andrés says of the chefs-going-fast-casual trend. He notes that chefs, not corporations (including a certain one with "a clown" as its spokesperson) should be at the forefront of the conversation. "Already we are 20 years too late."
Beefsteak, in the model of fast-casual juggernaut Chipotle, allows guests to customize their own bowls. But as the "Vegetables, Unleashed" tagline suggests, proteins are not the main focus; neither are leafy salads as in the Sweetgreen model. (That DC-based salad chain, which has nearly 30 locations nationally, scored a $18.5 million investment from the likes of restaurateur Danny Meyer and chef Daniel Boulud in November 2014.) Instead, Beefsteak's vegetable-centric menu presents diners with a grain option (bulgur, quinoa, rice), their choice of sauce, and a laundry list of both fresh and cooked vegetables, from brussels sprouts to asparagus to potatoes. Beefsteak's "meaty" add-on section offers just two actual meats: roasted chicken and salmon. Andrés admits his preferred build-your-own bowl doesn't even bother with grains, instead combining spiced tomatoes, cauliflower, green beans, scallions, and a seaweed topping.
"Of all the concepts I could open, I probably went with the most difficult one," Andrés says, "which is making people eat vegetables." (Other fast-casual concepts that Andrés considered: hot dogs, another sandwich restaurant in the vein of his Pepe food truck, a non-fried chicken restaurant that's "been on my mind for a long time," and a bibimbap restaurant.) "What America needs, what America wants, what they believe we need to be doing more of [is] uniting farmers and people," he says of going the veggie route. "America is moving to vegetables more and more. I see it in my own restaurants — every day, the vegetables are the biggest percentages of sales. I sell a lot of burgers to America. But I sell a lot of asparagus, too."
"I sell a lot of burgers to America. But I sell a lot of asparagus, too."
A little more than a week into Beefsteak's run, Andrés says he's receiving three vegetable shipments per day to keep up with demand. As the concept scales up — a second location has already been announced for DC's Dupont Circle neighborhood — Andrés's ThinkFoodGroup, which operates 21 other concepts, has to consider how best to work with the chef's preferred farmers, who might not be able to provide 900 covers' worth of Chinese cabbage. "What we really want to achieve is that we will be buying vegetables from all over America," Andrés says. "When available, we will do so with local farmers." The upcoming Dupont Circle location was chosen in part due to its proximity to the neighborhood farmer's market; Andrés hints that a third location will open in the DC metro area sometime later this year.
As previously reported, Andrés has ambitious plans for the concept, which he hopes will "feed the many": a recent promotional video captures Andrés's goal of serving "millions in a day." In 2014, ThinkFoodGroup promoted former Ruby Tuesday executive Kimberly Grant to the company's CEO, and Andrés will use DC as a test market to nail down details like food costs and growth. "I have high hopes for the concept, but again, I continue to be very humble about it because it's a hard business," Andrés says. "It's my first time in the fast casual flow... first I need to do the one, and then I need to do two, and start up one at a time. When I have one [location] one day, 10, or 100... This is a conversation not for now but for the future."
For now, Andrés is excitedly signing off on another mid-day shipment of vegetables and taking photographs of the line (one of which contains an accidental selfie). "I have a $10 sandwich place and I have a $400 high-end restaurant," he says. "But I had to cover in between — Beefsteak has been my first passion. I've been preparing myself for the last three years to do this."