- Italian cuisine is starting to make its way into the fast-casual sector.
- Pasta proves difficult to prepare and serve quickly for customers, and it has a sit-down dining connotation.
- Pizza is better suited to the fast-casual restaurant template due to the speed and ease of its prep.
There’s always something new on the Edison bulb-lit horizon of fast-casual food — some new cuisine, some new technology, something that owners hope will take off to be as popular as the fast-casual chain to beat: Chipotle (sans E. coli and unfortunate queso).
Tex-Mex made the rounds first, followed by the “better burger” explosion exemplified by Shake Shack. And now it seems that Italian food could be next.
Fast-casual pizza chains are spreading, and fast-casual dining’s roving eye has locked its gaze on pasta. But pasta proves to be a tough food to place within the fast-food and fast-casual template.
One problem is glaringly obvious. As anyone who has ever boiled a pot of water before knows, making pasta is not necessarily a speedy operation. In the time it takes to bring a regular stockpot — never mind the huge pots needed for large-scale commercial cooking — to boil, McDonald’s can knock out several orders.
Mark Ladner’s Pasta Flyer is hoping to overcome this disadvantage with a system of precooking, freezing, and flash-boiling noodles. And frankly, it works pretty well: on a recent visit to Pasta Flyer during its soft open, our three orders of pasta were cooked and ready within five minutes of ordering. It’s an impressive feat that puts the prep time on par with fast-food joints.
The second problem, however, is much more difficult to shake, as it has to do with the fickle art of perception. Pasta is, at base, a comfort food.
As Eater’s Andrea Marks writes, there is a certain warmth and camaraderie associated with pasta. It has a connotation of homemade meals, human labour and effort put lovingly into simmering pots of ragu and salted water. An “old-world” charm, if you will.
The sit-down family atmosphere of chain dining makes it easy for this feeling to be transferred to even the most mediocre and limp of Olive Garden noodles.
And on the other end of the spectrum lies fine dining, the domain of pristine white tablecloths and chef-driven excellence and experimentation, as evidenced by Ladner’s previous post as executive chef at Del Posto. Squid ink tagliatelle and truffle shavings are not exactly fast-food fare.
It’s that sense of the human hand and warmth that fast food cannot deliver adequately. Pasta is meant to be savoured in comfort, not devoured on the go. That is the largest obstacle standing between pasta and its fast-food future.
Meanwhile, pizza doesn’t deal with that high-brow, low-brow tension. While the quality of toppings can vary from delivery to upscale, the essence of a pizza is still pizza — a handheld food that holds no pretension or home-cooked expectations. It’s almost infinitely customisable, and it travels wel, hence the burgeoning success of chains like Blaze Pizza, Pizza Studio, and &pizza.
Blaze Pizza has seen promising growth this year — as of the third quarter, year-to-date sales increased 54% to $US200 million, and the chain has agreements in place to open roughly 400 additional locations in the near future. Another chain seeing rapid expansion is MOD Pizza, with 273 locations. MOD broke into six new states in 2016, and it began its first international expansion in the UK.
And if Danny Meyer’s recent foray into fast-casual pizza fares similarly to Shake Shack, it could prove to be a stable and profitable genre — more so than pasta by a long shot.
For now, don’t expect to see fast-food pasta taking off in any serious way. Go home, take some fettuccine out of the pantry, set a pot to boil, whip together some alfredo, and enjoy it in comfort. Or, you could always order some pizza.
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