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Many a food lover/business owner has wanted to create an easily replicable food chain that becomes a well-loved cash cow. If you are looking to start your own, here are our TOP Three Tips for a Fast Casual Startup.

Tip #1. Be known for something.

This is master chef Gordon Ramsey’s basic Kitchen Nightmares‘ rule #2 (right behind ‚Äúkeep it clean‚Äù). It holds especially true in the Fast Casual startup market. You must be famous for one thing. Just one. You’ve got to make the best “something.” Make that the fail-safe option for your customer to order. ‚ÄúIf it’s your first time here, we really want you to try ‘this’. Because, once you try it, you’ll be back again and again.” As a kid who grew up on the Florida coast, there was a Greek restaurant that ran a spot on the radio for years. At the end of the commercial, the owner said, in his heavy Mediterranean accent, ‚ÄúYou no satisfied, I pick up the tab.‚Äù His voice cracked on the word “tab” sparking visions in the minds of the listeners of that drunken party of 20 deciding (nightly) they needed George to conveniently pick up their tab.

No voice cracking allowed! In Fast Casual, you say it like you mean it. Every time. Stand behind every aspect of your customer’s experience. This includes the ads, the social media, the signage, the parking lot, the greeting, the interior, the menu, the food, the staff, the restrooms, the pricing: all of it! Return business is your cash cow. Your business will thrive or die based on whether or not you can consistently gain (and grow) repeat business. So focus on your “one thing!” If you aren’t known for something delicious, to put it bluntly, your Fast Casual will not last.

Tip #2. Keep Your Menu Simple.

Both Five Guys and Chipotle have nailed this concept with mouth-watering results. Both of these fast casual titans follow Tip #1. They’ve also mastered Tip #2. The only thing you should ever contemplate ‚Äúadding more‚Äù of are customizable toppings for your clientele. If you add another entree, you must take off the one that is performing poorest. Too many fast casual startup restaurants have menu lists that exceed 50 or 100 items. Overwhelming your customers and your staff with too many menu items guarantees people feeling stupid, and trust me, people do not like to feel stupid.. Re-read Tip #1. Remember to keep it simple.

Tip #3. Grow Small and Steady.

According to investors The Motley Fool, the number one mistake made by many fast-casual brands is promising too much growth too quickly. This is based, in large part, on the Chipotle’s wildly successful rise to the top. After all, Steve Ells has a personal net worth of reportedly $200 million and ranks #48 on Forbes list of CEO Compensation. Yet, Ells has parents who, in 1993, could stake him $85K to start his first Chipotle in a college town. Furthermore, they gave him an additional $1.5 million in investment to continue company growth. Mr. Ells then partnered with McDonalds in 1998 who invested $360 million into the company, till it went public in 2006.

When you look at numbers like that, you quickly understand that the Chipotle growth-effect is a myth. Odds are, you did not go to the Culinary Institute. Most importantly, you do not have, nor can you hope to have, that kind of investor backing. Learn from Steve. Take copious notes. Eat at every Chipotle you pass. Learn from his mistakes, as well as from his successes. Thoroughly understand; however, that gaining his level of financial backing is like getting struck by lightning: twice. It happens, but this is such a rare phenomenon as to make it happening to you a virtual impossibility. Therefore, make realistic promises to yourself and your investors. Grow steady by growing small. This is where the magic happens, as you work out all the foibles of your Fast Casual startup and gain your following.


There is room for creating enduring Fast Casual Startups that meet the taste and sensibilities of today’s modern eater. Consider that Mediterranean or Asian food chains are still virtually untapped, especially here in the U.S. Dare I say, ‚ÄúNoodles: a potential fortune in one hot pot.‚Äù

Maris, West & Baker has been helping Fast Casual Restaurants succeed for nearly 20 years. Producing effective, award-winning concepts from start to finish, we’ve helped multiple local eateries expand their profit-driven footprint beyond their owners imaginations. We’d love to sit down and talk about your idea. Together, we can help your fast-casual startup grow.

About the author: Erica Robinson once worked as the pastry chef for a local Great Harvest Bread chain here in Mississippi. Her ninja skills with dough, and all things food, are the stuff of legends.