It’s a space that’s been conquered by salad bars, burrito chains, bakeries, and burger joints. And yet pasta remains a white whale in the ocean of fast-casual dining.
The absence of a large fast-casual Italian food chain is more an issue of complication than choice. To be sure, the fast-casual segment of restaurants remains popular among consumers. Interest is high enough that major chains increased the number of restaurants they operated by 7% in 2016, compared to the prior year. And since 2007, fast-casual has grown by more than 80%, according to The NPD Group, an industry tracker.
So what is it about Italian food that has eluded the fast-casual market? According to a recent deep dive by Eater, it has everything to do with food texture and the decades-old branding American-style Italian food has cultivated.
There’s a reason Olive Garden’s tagline is, “When you’re here, you’re family.” Italian cuisine has long been emblematic of the tradition of gathering around a table and breaking bread with friends and relatives. That idea isn’t exactly transferrable to a model that has people racing through a cafeteria-style, choose-your-topping line before scurrying back to work to inhale their food at a desk.
And then there’s the issue of quality. Nobody wants to eat soggy or brittle pasta, but finding the perfect consistency for noodles means operating within a very small window of cook time to achieve that al-dente texture. It’s proved difficult to serve a uniform pasta for customers who expect Chipotle-level speed and quality while also managing a persnickety spaghetti noodle.
There have been some forays into the space. Vapiano is a relatively small German-based chain that has 12 locations across North America and dozens in Europe. Serve time is a bit longer than Chipotle, and it is slightly more expensive. One chef, Mark Ladner, is looking to break into the US market this spring—but whether he can make fast-casual Italian food work remains to be seen.
Ladner’s idea is an ambitious. Customers at his restaurant, called Pasta Flyer, will be able to choose between three different types of cooked-to-order pasta—rigatoni, fusilli, and penne—and several sauces. A variety of non-pasta meal items will also be available. Ladner is aiming to get each customer through the line and with their food in under three minutes.
It’s a tall order, but maybe it’s one that will wind up being the model for future Italian-influenced restaurants looking to get in on some of the fast-casual action.