It never hurts to be first out of the gate, especially when it comes to fresh, innovative thinking in the restaurant industry.
When veteran restaurateur Pierre Panos, also the creator of the popular Stoney River concept, came up with the idea of offering fine-dining American fusion food in under 10 minutes for under $10, he tapped a local Atlanta chef he very much admired, Jesse Gideon to be his right hand in bringing this new concept and dining segment to fruition. When they opened the first Fresh To Order (f2o) in Atlanta in 2006, it was focused around the concept that wholesome and creative meals don’t always have to be accompanied by an expensive price tag and lengthy wait.
The duo came up with “fast fine,” to describe this new segment, as guests lined up outside the doors to enjoy a menu that included a broad selection of fast, but fine food including famous salads, amazing panini sandwiches and fresh entrees called “long plates.” Every protein was cooked “fresh to order” on a flame grill in the open-display kitchen and dressings and soups were prepared fresh from scratch twice daily.
Today, there are six f2o locations, all but one in the Atlanta area, but that is about to change as the chain embarks on an exciting expansion plan after launching a franchising program in 2010. Projections call for signing at least five multi-unit franchisees in 2011 to open a combined 15 to 20 stores within three years. By 2015, f2o expects to have 50 locations open nationwide and another 50 in various stages of development.
Fast casual is considered the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry, but by upping the ante with a finer dining taste profile at a fast-casual price point, Panos says he clearly has an advantage as a “fast fine” pioneer.
“As far as we know, there isn’t another concept out there doing what we do,” Panos said. “Perhaps some competition will come down the line, but by then we will be way ahead of the pack in the same way that Panera is way ahead in the fast-casual space.”
Fresh To Order differentiates itself from the fast-casual crowd with its broad selection of dinner entrees or “long plates” that include such delectable items as Almond Rosemary-Crusted Chicken Skewers with Crunchy Asian Slaw and a Bourbon Filet with Balsamic Cabernet Reduction and Garlic Jack Grit Cake.
Combining such innovative cuisine with a warm, upscale atmosphere and a selection of beers and wines has helped f2o attract a more profitable dinner audience that makes up close to 40 percent of daily sales, whereas the dinner day part at most fast-casual brands typically represents less than 20 percent of sales.
“Fifty percent is the holy grail and we will get there eventually,” Panos said. “Having such a large dinner crowd increases our overall sales. People are seeing us as an alternative to casual dining restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory or California Pizza Kitchen.”
When creating f2o, Panos and Gideon listened and delivered what today’s dining public is demanding in increasing numbers: They want different. They want fresh. They want fine quality and they want it fast.
Fresh To Order’s long plates are only part of a tantalizing menu. The top-selling Asian Salad features crisp noodles, seven types of nuts and ginger and pairs perfectly with f2o’s Almond Rosemary-Crusted Tuna Steak. Another consistently high seller is the Spinach Salad with creamy blue cheese crumbles, strawberries and other seasonal fruit.
For those longing for a delicious, hot-pressed sandwich, the Smokey Southwest Chicken Panini features a spicy, wet blackening baste, while the Salmon Panini is complemented by a Roasted Corn Relish and Tarragon Aioli.
The average customer ticket order is $9 at lunch, $11 at dinner. Accolades have been coming in for some time.
“Breaking the Rules: f2o is tearing down the walls between fine cuisine and frugal customers,” said Atlanta Sports & Fitness Magazine. “There is nothing not to love about a place that pledges ‘cuisine for under $10 in less than 10 minutes’ and makes good on its promise by delivering fresh, abundant salads and perfectly proportioned entrees to your table in record time,” wrote Atlanta Magazine.
“People are responding even better than we initially expected,” said Gideon, who has since become an investor himself. “I think there is unlimited potential for growth—both for menu items and growth of the concept nationally.”
With its franchising program in full swing, f2o’s primary growth is expected to come from multi-unit developers who can commit to opening two to five restaurants within three years in a designated territory. Potential franchisees must have past success as a restaurant operator and /or multi-unit experience. Investment groups must have at least one operating partner with proven success in the industry.
“Fresh To Order is a perfect investment opportunity for large franchisees of other concepts who don’t want to expand out of their market, but want to bring in an exciting new brand. Those potential investors already have the necessary real estate and people experience to leverage our brand in their existing market,” said Panos, who is targeting the Southeast and westward to Texas for initial growth, but will also consider well-qualified investors from other parts of the country.
Potential franchisees will find that Panos and his senior executives understand the restaurant business like few others since QS America – the parent company of f2o, headed by Panos – operates brands in the fast food, fast casual and fine dining restaurant segments.
“Our team has been in place for more than 15 years,” Panos said. “We don’t lose our top people since we pride ourselves in always doing what we say we are going to do and we expect the same from them. The longer they stay in place, the stronger our culture becomes and the more successful we become, as well.”