In the mid-1990s, two chain restaurants launched in Denver, Colorado. One went on to open over 2,000 locations, spawn several competitors, and become the household name in giant takeout burritos. The other, Noodles & Company, opened just two years after Chipotle in 1995, serving Korean, Thai, and Japanese noodle dishes alongside Italian pastas, macaroni and cheese, and stroganoff. Last month, it announced it’s closing a tenth of its 510 stores.
The fast-casual genre is still growing, although not as fast as it was a few years ago. According to the latest numbers by industry research firm Technomic, established categories like “bakery,” led by Panera, and “Mexican grill” — Chipotle and its imitators — are showing signs of leveling off. Fast-casual pizza, on the other hand, thin-crusted and customizable with toppings too delicate for delivery, has become a significant frontrunner. The category, which includes Blaze Pizza and Pieology, showed 36 percent growth in 2015 compared to 11.6 percent in fast casual overall.
Pizza’s close cousin pasta, however, has struggled to find its place. For now, Technomic lumps the eclectic Noodles & Company with Asian spots like Panda Express, since, so far, no one has achieved a fast-casual pasta joint that can match the success and scale of casual dining heavy-hitters like Olive Garden and Maggiano’s. Fazoli’s, launched by the parent company that started Long John Silver’s, is a modest chain with around 200 locations, but noteworthy since they offer pasta along with pizza and other Italian fare.
Fine-dining chefs have been flocking to the fast-casual market for the chance to build a self-sustaining empire like Shake Shack. A few chefs are trying to crack the Italian pasta market, as well. Del Posto’s pasta whisperer Mark Ladner is expected to open Pasta Flyer in Manhattan in the coming weeks, promising “old-world cuisine at light speed.” There’s also Gerard Craft’s Porano Pasta in St. Louis, and Rick Gencarelli’s Grassa in Portland, Oregon. Each advertises fine dining–quality pasta at lunchtime prices and counter-service speeds, which brings its own set of challenges.
Italian restaurants already enjoy huge popularity in America, for more than just the food. A warm, familial atmosphere is one of the biggest selling points of a typical Italian restaurant, according to Fabio Parasecoli, a director of Food Studies Initiatives at the New School who has written about Italian food and culture.
“There is the sense that Italian restaurants come out of family,” he says. “That there are people cooking for you. It’s somewhat of a personal experience.” Italian restaurants are also often set up to serve family-style meals. “It’s part of the fun, the fact that you get a huge portion of pasta to be shared at the table,” Parasecoli says. Casual dining spots cash in on replicating that vibe, even if their food lags in quality. Take Olive Garden’s infamous tagline — “When you’re here, you’re family.” That warmth gets lost at counter-service fast-casual restaurants, where efficiency and food quality trump that old-world feel.
Gencarelli, whose background is in fine dining, has opened two locations of Grassa, his sleek, high-ceilinged fast-casual pasta restaurant in Portland — though he hopes to take his restaurant national. “The dream is that we open eight of them, or someone gets interested in taking it to the moon,” he says. He says quirky touches are what matter to his customers, who don’t seem to miss the old-world warmth. “We play vinyl in both Grassas, and that can sometimes be a real pain in the butt because when we’re super busy we’re still flipping records,” he says. “That’s something that we’ve had to sort of just commit to, but people dig it.”
Quality and creativity are important to any chef, but even more so when you’re building a business on a product as simple as noodles boiled in water. It’s a simple premise, but it’s easy to do wrong. To make pasta good enough to come back for, it first needs to be cooked to al dente perfection — then served promptly, from pot to plate. It can’t be piled into bins on display like a salad bar, which is the most frequent set-up of fast-casual restaurants. “It is never a good idea to have pasta sitting around,” Parasecoli says. “Some restaurants pre-cook pasta and then give it a last boil, but the texture is not good.”
At Grassa, customers can watch a staffer work the pasta extruder, pulling long noodles from a semolina-water mixture. Cooks also hand-make egg dough, gnocchi, and filled pasta. And then there are the toppings. Gencarelli says he braises pork all day, like his mother used to for a Sunday pork ragu, one of the more popular menu items. (All right, so he does sell the Italian family angle a little.)
Housemade noodles are not Noodles & Company’s thing: Volume and variety is, possibly to a fault. Parasecoli worries that by offering noodles from so many different cuisines, the chain is creating the “airport food court” effect. “The concept is basically noodles — as an object,” he says. “Maybe that could be perceived as a lack of authenticity and a little gimmicky.”
Too many options can also paralyze. At Porano, Craft is moving away from a purely customizable (aka Chipotle-like) model to give guests more guidance. Right now, customers choose their pasta, sauce, and toppings, but that approach isn’t as popular as the chef had hoped. “People get more overwhelmed than I thought with choices,” Craft says. He plans to have a new menu ready within the month, featuring some chef’s favorites while still offering the option to build your own dish.
Technomic’s research shows customization is trending strong right now, to a point. “It’s important to focus menu options in a way that narrows the choice process,” says Technomic president Darren Tristano. He thinks signature items designed and recommended by the chef are essential.
But even with a menu of high-quality ingredients, authenticity, and just enough variety, you still have to deal with carb-phobic customers. Amy Bentley, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, cautions that even using the word “noodles” or “pasta” in the restaurant’s name could set it up for a struggle. She points out that even Kentucky Fried Chicken rebranded itself to KFC to avoid broadcasting the word “fried” to an increasingly health-conscious audience.
“We’re in a moment of extreme carbohydrate- and gluten sensitivity in the largest sense,” she says. “There’s statistics out there that if people make a product and they put ‘gluten-free’ on it, they can charge higher prices and it increases sales.” Ladner, Gencarelli, and Craft all offer gluten-free pasta on their menus, which could be a boon for their popularity (even if science has found no health benefits to avoiding gluten unless you have a sensitivity).
Tristano agrees customers won’t come for noodles alone. “There is a lot of interest for food that tells stories about places and people,” agrees Parasecoli. “If you go to an Italian, Korean, or Vietnamese restaurant, you not only enjoy the food, you also enjoy [what we’ll call] the culinary tourism experience. You’re exposing yourself to another culture.”
Tristano predicts a strong adult beverage program and a dessert menus will be keys to success for fast-casual pasta. “Sometimes you have to think beyond the product and think about the cuisine,” he says. Noodles & Company offers soup and sandwiches, and Gencarelli says his partners actually have to rein him in to keep him from adding too many extras to the menu.
Of course, the more complex the product becomes, the more it costs to make, which can drive up the price or risk defeating the fast-casual concept’s low-overhead appeal.
Gencarelli describes pricing as his toughest learning curve, while trying to reach the market between high-end Italian and Olive Garden. “When you look at the numbers for pasta, our extruded pasta is semolina and water. It’s 11 cents for a five-ounce portion, right? It sounds like the dream,” he says. “But as soon as you put Parmesan cheese and a little bit of braised pork and some good tomatoes and olive oil and some sea salt, all of a sudden you’re not at the fast-casual price point anymore.”
After some trial and error, most of Grassa’s pasta dishes cost between $11 and $13. At Porano, customizable pasta bowls come in two sizes for $8.95 or $12.95. Compare that to a Chipotle burrito, which starts around $7 before adding extras.
Craft already switched from using chicken breasts to more flavorful and affordable thighs in the process of building an affordable menu. “That’s still a balance we’re working on for sure,” he says. “We’re working with our farmers and vendors and trying to make it fair for everybody.” He hopes to keep the majority of Porano’s new menu items in the same price range as the customizable bowls, but he says a few dishes may include extra toppings that could push them to a higher price. The trial and error will continue.
Tristano agrees pricing is one of the main challenges for chef-driven fast casual operations, because once the menu is good, it still has to offer what customers consider to be a good value. “When a high-end chef goes into one of these concepts, they’re using high-end ingredients, [more time-consuming] preparation methods, and more experienced staff, and often that pushes the price point up to $13, $14, $15, which tends to be a little bit too high,” he says. “Now you’re getting into casual dining territory and you’re outpricing yourself.”
Beyond affordability, Tristano adds, getting the meal has to be convenient. Restaurants like Chipotle easily burn through lunch-hour lines with minimal delays. At busy times, the line at Porano can be out the door and take up to 20 minutes, but Craft says from the time a customer orders to when he’s served still takes only about three minutes; his staff cooks hardy semolina pasta regularly throughout the day. At Grassa, Gencarelli has 12 baskets of boiling water that look like fry-o-lators and two cooks with six burners each. When a customer orders, pasta goes in the water for one to four minutes depending on how recently it was extruded, while the cooks make the sauce and cook the meat. Still, when they get backed up, people can wait 15 minutes for their meal.
“I know someone from Chipotle would walk in and think we’re idiots, because as a chef I came into this from the other end,” Gencarelli says. “If Chipotle did a pasta concept it would be faster, more efficient, and all the things that slow us down and keep our labor and food cost a bit higher would not exist. Would it be as delicious, unique and fun? I don’t think so.”
Andrea Marks is a writer based in New York City who likes covering subcultures, science, food, and feminism.
Editor: Erin DeJesus