It used to be that there were two well-established models for casual dining: fast food chains or table-service restaurants. When chains such as Panera Bread and Chipotle entered the fray, they made claims for food that was still quick, but fresher and healthier, thus inaugurating the onset of what has come to be termed fast-casual dining.
Typically, the fast-casual paradigm includes not only higher quality fare that’s often made to order, but also a modified service style wherein customers order from friendly, well trained staff at a counter, pay, and then take their seats to await the delivery of their meals. Waiting around at the counter and carrying trays laden with food and drink are out.
Often, but not always, customers are in charge of getting their own drinks. Ideally the wait time between ordering and receiving meals is much less than at full-service restaurants, and the cost of the meal is lower. (For one thing, tipping is optional.) The dining atmosphere, while still casual, is more upscale than a fast-food eatery and not of cookie-cutter design. Fast-casual also implies leaving behind Formica counters, uncomfortable plastic chairs and benches, and fluorescent lighting. Most places allow or even encourage patrons to bring in beer and wine to enjoy with their meals.
Independent operators all over the U.S. took notice, especially during the economic downtown that began in 2007. While restaurant sales overall dropped nationally by an average of 2 percent in 2008 and 2009 and remained flat after that, fast-casual sales were growing: by 17 percent from 2009 to 2012, and 13 percent in 2013.
Now prominent national restaurateurs and chefs are also beginning to get in on the act. Following on Danny Meyer’s highly successful Shake Shack empire, D.C.-based celebrity chef Jose Andres has just opened Beefsteak, a fast-casual restaurant focusing on mix-and-match vegetable and grain bowls. Lines have been out the door ever since
So it is not surprising that in the last few years the Princeton area has seen the establishment of several independent, locally owned eateries that have adopted and expanded upon the fast-casual model.
Most follow the Chipotle model in that they pride themselves on sourcing ingredients that are natural, sustainably raised and grown, and sometimes even organic and local. Among the representative examples below are places that fit the mold while specializing in everything from tapas and panini to crepes, pan-Asian soul food, Mexican street-style food, and gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan sweets and savories. Some switch between fast casual and table service during the course of a single day. Interestingly, one eatery has gone the opposite route: changing over from fast-casual to table service.
In addition, since the proprietors of these eateries are locally based, they often pride themselves on being good neighbors who are heavily invested in the local community.
I spoke with the key players to find out not only why they chose this route, but also the implications for them, their customers, and the dining public.
#b#The Taco Truck#/b#
In many ways, this northern New Jersey-based group typifies how and why independents took up the fast-casual mantle. It started out proffering “authentic Mexican street food” from a truck in Hoboken and has expanded to four brick-and-mortar locations (plus ventures outside the state). Its newest restaurant opened in December, 2014, in the Princeton Shopping Center.
Jason Scott, who founded the enterprise in 2009 along with Chris Viola, says, “Yes, that was a rocky time to launch. But people still wanted good food, healthy food, and they weren’t necessarily willing to pay for a fine dining/white tablecloth experience. So we wanted to come in as kind of ‘fine-casual.’ Between our service style — running the food to the table — and having really engaging cashiers, that’s really beyond fast casual.”
Scott ssays that the Taco Truck’s menu of double-wrapped soft tacos, tortas (toasted Mexican sandwiches), salads, sweets, and burritos (those last a Princeton innovation), has brought in more families with children than their other locations. As a result, he says, they have added a kid’s combo pack to the menu and are rolling out in-restaurant activities for them. “Particularly because we’re not a fast food restaurant, it’s a little bit longer experience. I’m a parent of three-year-old twins, so I know what it’s like.” Such responsiveness typifies the current fast-casual model.
The Princeton eatery, which has 15 full and part-time employees, also reflects the company’s stated commitment to the communities it operates in. Opening day’s proceeds were donated to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK), and the Taco Truck was among those at Princeton Truckfest 2015 on April 25 and Communiversity the next day.
Scott also points out that the company’s commitment to minimizing negative impact on the planet, both in terms of ingredients and by operating environmentally sensitive operations, “really resonates in Princeton. We’re not the least expensive option for Mexican food because we source natural foods that will taste great and be healthful, and people here get that.” Their meats come from animals raised on vegetarian diets and without hormones or antibiotics, most of them from regional farms.
The design of each location is unique. Princeton’s rustic-industrial space features reclaimed wood from a barn in Lambertville, LED light fixtures, and low-flush toilets. “All of our to-go packaging is compostable, and we compost onsite. We have a breakdown station and get a compost pick up twice a week,” Scott says.
The Taco Truck, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton Shopping Center, Princeton. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. 609-580-1384. www.thetacotruck.com.
Having a small environmental footprint is also the goal at this farm-to-table creperie on Nassau Street. “Nothing goes into waste,” says Kim Rizk, who with partner Kathy Klockenbrink opened Jammin’ Crepes last October. In addition to the signature sweet and savory crepes, the menu features soups, salads, and baked goods. Every bit of this restaurant’s serving and take-out ware is 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
The fast-casual service model seemed a natural fit, too, because the pair had launched their business at area farmers markets. For three seasons their unique crepes had been popular draws at both the Princeton and West Windsor markets (they will participate in both of them again this year). “We were basically a street-food vendor, and we wanted to keep that feel,” Rizk says. “Ours is fresh, fast, fun fare, and more affordable in many ways. The fast-casual model fills that bill. It feels less formal, more friendly.”
The restaurant’s unique look reinforces that — what Rizk characterizes as “a lively market feel that promotes lots of chatter.” It has the look and feel of a rustic but chic farmhouse, including a built-in, floor-to-ceiling wood hutch that holds gleaming Mason jars filled with Jammin’ Crepes’ housemade pickles and preserves, which are popular retail purchases there.
Customers who are eating in order at the counter and are given a playing card to stick into one of the tall stands on the table of their choice. They retrieve cold drinks, such as Terhune Orchards cider, Jammin’ Crepes iced tea, and Jersey-made sodas from a refrigerated case next to the counters. Hot drinks — Small World coffee, tea, espresso, cappuccino, etc. — are made to order and delivered right from the counter. Customers are expected to bus their tables on the way out. As in all fast-casual restaurants, tipping is optional. Here there’s a jar up front.
But implementing this style of service, Rizk admits, “isn’t easy in many ways.” It took customers a while to get the system down. “Since each crepe is made fresh to order a party of, say, five who orders crepes may not all get them at the same time. But they can expect them to all arrive within a reasonable window. The restaurant team, which includes Rizk’s husband, Amin, had to make some adjustments as well. “We now have two registers, one dedicated to takeout to streamline the to-go business. This is our ‘express’ register. The other register is for those waiting to be seated.” They have also added a hostess to expedite seating during prime hours.
Jammin’ Crepes, 20 Nassau Street, Princeton. Open Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sundays 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. 609-924-5387. www.jammincrepes.com.
#b#WildFlour Bakery & Cafe#/b#
Marilyn Besner encountered the same problem soon after she opened her gluten-free bakery and cafe in the village of Lawrenceville two years ago. “We used to have everyone order at the counter, but we don’t anymore. Because we’re a bakery and do takeout, the wait became too long,” she says. This was especially frustrating for customers who, say, just wanted to pick up a muffin and coffee to go. They would have to wait their turn at the counter while an entire group of eat-in guests would take time pouring over the menu, holding things up. Customers staying to dine on WildFlour’s artisan crepes, pastries, soups, salads, and smoothies — which are also vegetarian as well as gluten-free — are now escorted by a hostess and receive full, but still casual, table service.
“I was new to this business,” Besner says. “The idea of training and developing wait staff called for skills I didn’t possess. But everything about WildFlour has ‘brewed’ organically from the initial concept,” depending, she says, on customer response. She has had to hire more serving and cleaning staff, but it’s worth it, she says. As always, everything is cooked to order at her breakfast and lunch eatery. Besner is currently focusing on developing her catering business, and recently introduced an online catering menu. “Just last week I delivered lunch to a group at Princeton University,” she says.
WildFlour Bakery & Cafe, 2961 Main Street, Lawrenceville. Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 609-620-1100. www.wildflourbakery-cafe.com.
Chris Pataki chose the fast-casual model for the panini and tapas lounge he opened last August just a mile and a half from the Trenton-Mercer Airport. “I aimed to offer fine dining-caliber food at reasonable cost,” he says. “So I wanted to, as much as possible, relieve the burden of tipping for the guest. No extra cost beyond the meal itself.” At CrisPanino (a combination of his first name and his line of signature sandwiches), guests order at the counter from a sprawling menu of 130 items ranging from upscale and creative panini to small plates modeled on the Spanish tradition but featuring international combinations. These range from empanadas and crab spring rolls to veal meatballs and Maryland crab dip.
“We deliver food to them, and we bus and clean the tables,” he says. He and his staff of 10 have been surprised to find that customers leave tips voluntarily. “We’ve found that lots of people are generous, and these people leave tips between 15 and 20 percent,” he reports.
Pataki, 36, grew up in Ewing, but his mother is from Argentina. He studied culinary arts at Mercer County Community College and restaurant management in Argentina, which is where he met his wife and opened his first restaurant. He makes just about everything from scratch, including labor-intensive veal stock that goes into the classic French sauces that are part of his creations. “My food is made to order and as fresh as possible,” he says. “The majority of our ingredients are delivered daily, fresh, and raw. We don’t purchase sauces, and our dishes are made using classical technique.”
Pataki has also paid careful attention to decor. In addition to regular tables and chairs, the large, airy room earns its “lounge” moniker with a leather sofa and matching armchairs, coffee tables, and modern woven rattan chairs. Hanging from one long wall is a row of corkscrews and wine glasses, and frosted beer mugs are always at the ready. (He’s pleased that the small strip mall where his restaurant is located sports a wine and liquor store.) Tapas come on white porcelain plates.
His best-selling item by far is the ranch bacon chicken panino. “It’s a darn good sandwich,” he says. “Seared chicken breast, cherry-wood smoked bacon, pepperjack cheese, and creamy ranch sauce made with buttermilk here, from scratch.”
CrisPanino, 1507 Parkway Avenue, Ewing. Open Mondays through Thursdays, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Fridays, 7 a.m. to 190 p.m.; Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sundays, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. 609-771-1414. www.crispanino.com.
#b#Roots Asian Kitchen#/b#
Tiffany Liu and her chef husband, Tom Chu, owned Elements Asia, the popular full-service restaurant in Lawrenceville for more than 10 years. But when Liu decided she wanted to sell that restaurant and open one featuring “Asian heritage cuisine with contemporary influences,” as Roots does, she chose to make it a unique hybrid of fast casual and table service. For lunch/brunch, which starts at 11 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends, the service is fast casual, with guests ordering and paying at the counter, receiving a stand with a number to plop on their choice of table, then having their food and drink delivered to them. Circulating throughout the room are attentive staff who check in at each table to refill water glasses, bring extra cutlery, and answer questions. Come dinner time, though, and guests are seated by a host, presented with a menu at the table, and given the full-service treatment.
Why? “In this area we have a lot of office workers,” says Liu, of the space in the Windsor Green (Whole Foods) Shopping Center on Route 1. “These people have a short period of time for lunch, and here they’re able to order and get their food quickly.” Before opening Roots, Liu asked for input from customers at Elements Asia, as well as friends and acquaintances. “Young people, old people — everyone!” she says. The dual system is the result. “Everyone gets the same ingredients and good service,” she continues. “But at dinner I don’t want my customers who have worked all day and then come out for dinner with their families to have to wait in line to order.” These folks, she acknowledges, aren’t on a tight time limit and are, well, tired.
Liu says that staffing for the different models hasn’t been a problem. “We have shifts, and there’s some crossover. We have staggered arrival times. One group arrives around 10:45 a.m., then another around noon, and so on. Dinner chefs come in around two and work until the end of the evening.” Like Chris Pataki, Liu has discovered that even at fast-casual lunch service, customers often leave tips. “We’ve calculated that the average tip during lunch is from 12 to 18 percent,” she says.
Tom Chu is the head chef, though there’s also a Frenchman, Chef Anthony, who makes sweet and savory crepes. Mostly though, the menu features pan-Asian favorites made fresher, lighter, and healthier. “But with every bit as much taste!” Liu insists. These include dumplings, spring rolls, and other dim sum; sushi; soups and ramen; noodle dishes; and eight highly customizable noodle and grain bowls. Many offerings are naturally vegetarian or gluten-free, and guests can opt for the house’s regular low-sodium soy sauce or a gluten-free version.
Best sellers at lunch, says Liu, are the housemade fresh organic fruit and vegetable juices, dumplings (which include pork, steak pot stickers, and soup dumplings), and bowls. For those last, Liu says, customers like to make them their own, choosing the protein (chicken, beef, shrimp) or going vegetarian, and choosing among white, brown, and purple rice (which is a cross between brown rice and forbidden rice) or even opting for fresh ramen noodles instead of rice.
Liu sources seasonal ingredients locally as much as possible, and is currently in discussion with Zone 7, the Ringoes-based farm produce delivery service that works with many of the area’s top restaurants. For other ingredients, Liu uses high-end purveyors such as Sid Wainer, which is among the nation’s top specialty foods suppliers.
She even bought local when it came to the restaurant’s warm and neutral modern decor, which she designed herself. Fabric on the banquettes that line one long wall is from Jo-Ann Fabric and the flooring is from Worldwide, both in Lawrenceville. Stone Tech in Trenton provided tile and the stone for the large, wide, curved gray granite counter. Even the artwork is local: black-and-white photos of Terhune Orchards line the walls, and a striking figurative painting by local artist James Doherty greets guests in the alcove. (Doherty also painted walls and installed horizontal wood planking.)
Roots, by the way, is not the first restaurant in the area to adopt a bi-fold service model. For years, Chambers Walk, the modern American cafe in Lawrenceville, has switched on a daily basis between modified fast-casual for lunch and elegant table service in the evening. The restaurant call its lunch “express service” (“to help you during your busy day”), for which guests choose from a pre-set menu to which daily specials are added. They order and pay at the front desk, pour their own hot and cold drinks, choose a seat, and wait for their selections to be brought to them. Evenings, the website promises, feature “attentive table service for a more relaxed evening.”
Roots Asian Kitchen, 3495 Route 1, Windsor Green Shopping Center, West Windsor. Open Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Fridays, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. 609-799-8858. www.rootsprinceton.com.
One local restaurateur has chosen to go against the tide and recently switched from fast casual to table service for all meals. Mary Fritschie and husband Mike Carnevale’s laidback, Eastern-inspired coffee bar and tea room has offered an eclectic menu of all-natural breakfast, lunch, and dinner items that are vegetarian, vegan, kosher, and/or gluten-free in a below-stairs space on Hulfish Street since late 2011.
In mid-March of this year, Infini-T replaced its order-at-the-counter system with full-on table service at all meals. “It’s interesting,” Fritschie notes. “We live right here in town and love to travel internationally. Even as a child, traveling with my family, among my favorite places to visit were Turkish tea houses. There, everything was casual table service. Well, our customers come from those same parts of the world, and that is what makes them feel like home.”
The majority of her customers — university undergrads and graduate students, professors, local families — hail from India, the Middle East, and Asia, exactly the parts of the world that Fritschie and Carnevale regularly visit to suss out teas grown under sustainable working conditions and fair-trade and organic coffees and spices.
“Our guests enjoyed it when we came over to the table and engaged in real conversations. You know, to me business doesn’t mean aiming for long lines, but rather, providing comfort and knowing they can settle in for as long as they wish,” Fritschie says.
The switchover has meant hiring more staff. “We quickly realized we needed to keep hiring to provide the kind of service we were aiming for — and training them to do more than stand at a register,” she says. “We want them to interact with customers more — letting their personalities shine and explaining, for example, how the teas are sourced. This is fun for us, and a part of our mission has always been to educate people about tea, about fair trade.” (Infini-T recently launched an online tea retail business.)
Fritschie, too, is expanding her relationship with local farm suppliers, among them Double Brook Farm in Hopewell, to increase Infini-T’s farm-to-table stance. And she just took on a student from Johnson & Wales, the highly respected culinary school, as a summer intern. “She’s interested in learning more about vegan and vegetarian cooking, so we can help her grow,” Fritschie says. “She can offer us her ideas, and we can show her how a small business is run.
Infini-T Cafe, 4 Hulfish Street, Princeton. Open Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. 609-454-3959. www.infini-tcafe.com.
Pat Tanner blogs at www.dinewithpat.com.