Built on the notion that noodles are a universal comfort food, the chain offers a medley of Asian, Mediterranean and American pasta dishes starting around $5 a bowl. Patrons can opt for a small or regular-size bowl of noodles, soup or salad, which they can customize with add-ins of meat, shrimp or tofu for $2 more.
Orders are placed at the register and delivered to your table. Diners are encourage not to bus their table or tip. This hybrid-service model is popular at fast-casual spots such as Nando’s Peri Peri and Cosi, but Noodles & Co. wants to take it a step further.
Starting this spring, the company is to offer full table service after 4:30 p.m. at restaurants in Denver, Chicago and the Washington area. Customers must still place their initial order at the counter, but can request additional items from servers. Noodles & Co. tested the service in Denver, where sales climbed by 15 percent last year.
“Restaurants have identified an opportunity to sell more by getting you while you are at the table, and that could mean anything from a dessert to a beverage,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a research and consulting firm. He pointed out that Asian-inspired eatery Mama Fu’s in Austin also offers full service in the evening.
A soft sell
At Noodles & Co., president and chief executive Kevin Reddy said the evening service was the natural next step in providing customers “a higher level of service without giving anything up in terms of value, or price or time.”
“We’re not incentivizing [servers] to upsell,” he said. “They’re not getting compensated by trying to ring an extra dollar out of the guests. We are building sales through it, but in a very informal, friendly, non-intrusive way.”
All new restaurants, he said, are being designed with more seating, but are only a tad larger than the average 2,700-square-foot store. Reddy said the company improved upon the kitchen design to gain more space. He estimates it cost $675,000 to retrofit each new local eatery.
Reddy, a former chief operating officer at Chipotle Mexican Grill, has more than doubled Noodles & Co.’s restaurants to 284 in 19 states since joining the company in 2006. Sales at Noodles & Co. reached $300 million in 2011, a 15 percent increase over the prior year, according to Technomic.
Growth in the fast-casual niche has outpaced the restaurant industry as consumers gravitate to wallet-friendly meals. Tristano at Technomic said sales in the category jumped from $5 billion to $27 billion in the past 10 years, averaging 7 percent to 10 percent annual growth. Analysts expect revenue will keep pace this year as leaders like Chipotle and Five Guys continue expanding.
Dozens of fast-casual restaurants are in the works inside the Beltway. Homegrown Sweetgreen and New York-based Energy Kitchen recently inked deals for space at 1901 L St. NW. Local chain Z-Burger has staked out space in Columbia Heights and Clarendon, while Yo! Sushi has locations under way at Union Station and in Chinatown.
And that’s just the start. Restaurant broker Thomas N. Papadopoulos said six of his clients, including Bobby’s Burger Palace and burrito chain Boloco, are hunting for space. He estimates that demand for new sites is up more than 10 percent this year, compared with a year earlier.
Reddy is not surprised. Noodles & Co., he said, encountered stiff competition as it scoured the market for sites.
“Washington is such a vibrant area ... if you can get the right deal, you know you’ll be successful,” Reddy said, which is why Noodles & Co. will continue searching for more locations to reach its goal of 100 restaurants in the region.