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Top takeaways from a fast casual's top chef

Lessons learned throughout his culinary journey differentiate the management style and menu mindset of Piada's Matt Harding.
Piada power bowl
Photo courtesy of Piada Italian Street Food

Matt Harding, vice president and director of culinary for Piada Italian Street Food, was trained at the Culinary Institute of America, cooked in several fine-dining kitchens in the U.S. and Europe, and was mentored by some of the top professionals in the industry.

His stint in a well-known San Francisco restaurant was particularly eye-opening. “It was the master class—the intersection of talent, amazing food and ingredients,” he said. The experience raised his standards and expectations and provided a lifelong knowledge that “we can do better,” he said.

That knowledge informs the way he develops the menu and manages his teams at Piada.

Harding believes that fast casual is now the “sweet spot for the dining public” and finds it an exciting place to be.

“There’s been a democratization of food,” he said. “As guests become more educated, they want good food in a less stuffy, more relaxed atmosphere.”

Piada locations are designed to be cool environments with a decor that’s a little bit upscale, Harding said. The menu features fresh, chef-inspired food at fast-casual prices.

But as Piada’s top chef since 2014, he’s figured out that when it comes to the menu, it’s better to do more with less.

“We used to change the menu more frequently, but customers became angry when we took away their favorites,” he said. “When guests find their ‘sweet spot’ on the menu, do not move it!”

Matt Harding
Matt Harding

Now Harding augments the menu instead of changing it, innovating around core items such as pastas, chopped salads and sauces, perhaps switching up the dessert and beverage selection.

Recently, he added hot chicken to the lineup, and guests can choose to add that protein to a salad or piada wrap. And several limited-time beverages are making their appearance, including hibiscus lemonade and a honey, cantaloupe and lime agua fresca.

Customization is still key to Piada, but Harding has also expanded the chef-curated section of the menu, adding bowls, salads and pastas that provide guests with a starting point. 

“We added more items here because of the presence of digital. It helps guests with decision making and our teams with throughput,” he said. “Guests can then customize from here if they want to … changing spaghetti for penne, or spinach for pancetta, for example.”

Accuracy is most important to customers when they place digital orders, Harding believes, so he cut back on the number of customization choices. No longer can you put strawberries on pasta pomodoro—something one customer actually did request on the line.

With the increase in off-premise during the pandemic, Piada rethought how it packed salads and proteins. “We started constructing the salads in layers with the salad dressing on the side,” said Harding. “We worked with a packaging supplier to re-engineer a ramekin that would fit in the container. Now there’s a hole where the dressing should go, so a team member immediately knows if it’s missing.”

He also found that flipping the make line to put the hot proteins last was a better way to handle to-go orders. It improved the presentation and lessened the chance of the chicken or meatballs getting squashed.

Harding credits his mentors for teaching him how to inspire team members and bring them along on the journey. “I learned to accept and meet people where they are,” he said. “Listening and understanding encourages people to grow.”

One goal Harding continues to strive for—and pass on to his team—is to “keep yourself in that ‘uncomfortable zone’—the zone of learning. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re probably in the wrong room,” he said.

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