In an era when fast casual growth is beginning to slow and the segment faces increased competition from QSRs, convenience stores and ready-to-eat grocery brands, fast casual restaurants must find new ways to regain their competitive advantage. Sous vide protein choices could be the answer.
Incorporating sous vide prep gives fast casual chefs and managers the time they need to focus on food quality, value, and overall dining experience — 3 areas fast casual outlets must get right to outperform their less expensive competitors.
Today, let’s take an in-depth look at how sous vide cooking can help your restaurant in each area.
1. Food Quality
Last year, in its first-ever report on the fast casual sector, Zagat found that food quality was the most common priority for fast casual diners. 94 percent of the consumers Zagat surveyed in 2015 ranked food quality among the most important attributes that influence them to opt for fast casual. In fact, food quality far outpaced the next most commonly ranked influencers (cleanliness at 46 percent, value at 45 percent, and convenience and speed at 39 percent).
Fully cooked sous vide solutions can allow fast casual restaurants to preserve (and, in some cases, potentially improve) the quality of their recipes. How?
It’s virtually impossible to overcook when you cook sous vide. Even if your staff overshoots the indicated cook time, the heat is low and even. Under such conditions, proteins don’t denature as readily, so a long cook won’t negatively affect the texture of your meat or vegetable.
The result is a perfectly cooked, flavor-sealed dish that only needs a quick finishing cook to serve. It’s sure to please choosy fast casual diners.
When kitchens repeatedly fire ovens or grills to high heat, allow them to cool between orders, then fire them back up again, a lot is lost to thermodynamic entropy. Gas and electricity are expensive — fast casual restaurants that find ways to minimize their energy costs can pass along those savings to diners.
When you opt for ready-made sous vide solutions, you’re spending less time and money on initial cooking. And, because sous vide foods are cooked under vacuum seal, they keep well for extended periods of time. That means less food waste and fewer sunk costs. Again, the savings can be passed along to attract and retain customers who might otherwise opt for your QSR or convenience store competitors.
3. Dining Experience
In an industry that thrives on speed and convenience, counter lines won’t do. They discourage customers.
When business is brisk and the kitchen has difficulty meeting the assembly line’s needs, cooks can feel pressured to hurry the process — they might cut corners in prep, rush the cook time, over- or under-season the food. Missteps like those can drive customers away as surely as long lines can.
So how can sous vide positively impact your restaurant’s service speed?
Sous vide items are prepared well in advance, by your supplier. In building a menu around sous vide items, your fast casual restaurant allows itself the flexibility to build up a large pantry reserve that can be tapped, at a moment’s notice, to meet the demands of the line.
And, as mentioned above, vacuum-sealed sous vide foods have longer-than-average shelf lives. The risk of food waste won’t increase with an increase in your restaurant’s pantry stores.
With plenty of fully-cooked items at hand, your kitchen staff won’t feel pressure to cut corners. They’ll feel less stressed-out. They’ll feel prepared. And a well-prepared, well-supplied kitchen staff is less likely to crash and burn during heavy meal rushes. Customers will be more likely to get their food quickly and find it prepared to their high expectations.
And, by increasing efficiency in the kitchen, you’ll give your staff more time to focus on plating and presenting food, checking orders for accuracy, cleaning the store and providing friendly, proactive customer service.
In that regard, a move to incorporate more sous vide in your kitchen operations could create an efficiency ripple effect that would positively affect all aspects of the dining experience… and leave your competitors scrambling to figure out just how in the heck you did it.