What restaurant group would love to have its own real-world lab for testing out new ideas. The key for the Lab will be to find the perfect balance between flexible space and providing a product that people in the neighborhood can depend upon.
— Jason Clampet
Earlier this summer during a quick trip to Washington, D.C., Chefs+Tech stopped by on opening week of ThinkFoodLab, chef and entrepreneur José Andrés’ space that will host a rotating cast of quick service restaurant concepts.
The space was bustling with ThinkFood Group employees and restaurant workers getting ready for the day’s diners to wade in, attracted by both word of mouth and its location. The site across from the National Archives and just around the block from ThinkFoodGroup’s corporate office is ideal for office workers at lunch time.
For its first concept TFG built off the menu and concept behind its five-year-old Pepe food truck. Eric Martino, Chief Operating Officer of the fast casual business at ThinkFoodGroup, calls it “Pepe 2.0.”
There are cold and hot sandwiches including ham and cheese or smoked salmon on soft white bread, or more Spanish-influenced rolls with breaded chicken and sausages. They also fly in bread from Spain for pan de cristal, open-faced sandwiches in three sizes (priced from around $8 to $30) — the larger ones are meant to be shared. The menu also includes sides like gazpacho and salads.
It’s a menu that provides multiple entry points for both the fan of Spanish cuisine and the random diner who just wanders in off the street. While there’s no open kitchen, the ingredient lists on the screens and the paper menus provide some transparency. A grab-and-go cold case helps as well.
The space doesn’t feel like a hastily assembled temporary pop-up. Rather it is much like other modern fast casual/fast food spaces, with warmly lit spaces and tech-enabled hospitality. Diners wouldn’t be crazy to think they had walked into a Chipotle, New York’s Made Nice, or even a modernized McDonald’s.
The group hopes that the learnings from the lab can be shared across its growing group of restaurants, especially quick service ones like its veggie-focused Beefsteak. Martino told us that the space will help them deliver “the next big thing thanks to real-time R&D.”
TFG will look to technology to provide many of these insights. For payments the pop-up space uses Square and for operations they rely on Ctuit. If lines get too long, staff comes out from behind the counter to take orders and payments with Square. It will provide a test space for staff as well, as D.C. deals with a District-mandated minimum-wage increase over the next few years from $12.50 to $15 by 2020. The transition is, in Martino’s words, an “opportunity for us to be a part of evolving jobs for young people.”