What foodservice directors can learn from the fast-casual model

Piada Italian Street Food and Choolaah Indian BBQ are growing fast casuals with authentic, hand-crafted menus and well-defined missions.
Piada Italian Street Food and Choolaah Indian BBQ both feature bowls and wraps that reflect their cuisines. | Photos courtesy of Piada and Choolaah.

“The main driver behind fast casual is the democratization of food,” Matthew Harding, SVP of culinary and menu innovation for Piada Italian Street Food, told attendees last week at FoodService Director’s MenuDirections conference.

The 2023 conference was held at The Ohio State University in Columbus from Oct. 8-10, with operators from college dining, healthcare, K-12 schools and senior living in attendance.

Piada launched in 2010 in Columbus and now has 51 locations in seven states. The idea came about when founder Chris Doody discovered the flatbread known as piadina at a café in Italy, thought it would make a good base for wrapped sandwiches in the U.S. and took some freshness cues from Chipotle and hospitality cues from Panera to start a fast casual focusing on Italian food. There was no Italian fast casual at the time. The menu has since expanded to include chef-curated bowls, pastas and sides.

caprese piada

The Caprese Piada is filled with mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, arugula and basil pesto. | Photo courtesy of Piada Italian Street Food

During a general session at MenuDirections, Harding went on to outline the steps to creating a fast casual model from start to finish, based on Piada’s “core four:”

• Genuine hospitality: Everything begins and ends with the guest in mind

• Passionate chefs and team members; hiring and training staff is key

• Thoughtfully prepared food; everything is crafted fresh

• Discipline and focus; passion drives discipline

It’s a model that noncommercial operators can replicate in college dining halls, hospital cafes and other venues.

That’s exactly what Choolaah Indian BBQ is doing at 13 college campuses [including Ohio State], explained Simran Sethi, chief product and wellness officer for that concept. The Cleveland, Ohio-based fast casual also has freestanding restaurants, which will number seven by year’s end.

In another general session, Sethi led attendees through the numerous and diverse culinary styles of India, demonstrating how they adapt to a fast casual menu. And while hot spices characterize some curries from the South, most Indian food is not hot, she said.

Like Piada, bowls and wraps are the main players on Choolaah’s menu, with street foods as supporting characters. Instead of the piadina, naan is the carrier for tandoori chicken or lamb, a cauliflower and chickpea combo or paneer. Guests choose veggies and house-made sauces like spicy mango, Choolaah ranch and green chili hot sauce to complete the wrap.

On the bowl side, Choolaah offers four signatures to which diners can add a protein (chicken, lamb, salmon, paneer, veggie croquette or tofu.)

The street food section includes traditional choices such as samosas as well as Pav Bhaji, a slider filled Indian-style with a vegetarian version of the sloppy Joe.


Pav Bhaji is an Indian-inspired slider filled with a vegetarian sloppy Joe mixture. | Photo courtesy of Choolaah Indian BBQ.

Choolaah exemplifies why Indian-inspired bowls, wraps and street snacks fit well into the fast casual model and the timing is right to expand onto more college campuses and food halls. Sethi pointed that there’s been 30% growth of Indian students at U.S. colleges in the last few years and Indian is the fastest growing cuisine on Instagram.

The health angle also matches up with the current “food as medicine” movement. “Ayurveda is the bedrock of Indian culinary philosophy,” Sethi said. The system is based on eating according to the seasons, the healing power of spices and herbs and achieving a balance of body, mind, spirit and the environment.



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