Michael Lastoria and Steve Salis, the owners of &pizza, say there is just one rule in their growing empire of do-it-yourself pies.
The pizza must fit in the oven.
Customers here have their pick of the ingredients on &pizza’s assembly line. There have been occasions, the guys offer with a laugh, when pies have been stacked so high with truffle spread, fresh mozzarella, meatballs and shrimp that it was dicey. These days, the staff is taught to prod customers — gently — to reconsider when the list gets too long. The pie does, after all, have to cook.
In June, &pizza opened its fifth location, on E Street NW. A slick, narrow little space done up in black marble with gray accents, it’s missing one thing: a menu on the wall.
As statements of diner empowerment go, that is a highly symbolic gesture.
“Menus,” Lastoria sniffs, “scream ‘fast food.’ ” While &pizza is fast, turning dough into chewy neo-Neapolitan pizzas in an average of 4.5 minutes, its owners would rather you think of them as anything but fast food.
Instead, diners at the restaurants get clipboards listing a few signature pizzas, followed by the mother lode: 49 options for customizing your pizza, from the crust (there are three) and proteins (nine, including pepperoni, eggs and falafel) to cheeses (three, including one vegan) and “finishes” (of which there are a whopping 15 options, including basil, fig Marsala and pineapple salsa).
Even if you’ve never been to an &pizza, you know this drill. Because &pizza is, effectively, D.C.’s Chipotle of pizza. Nearby District Taco is the Chipotle of tacos; Merzi, Chipotle of Indian food; Cava Mezze Grill, Chipotle of Mediterranean food; and Rice Bar, Chipotle of Korean food.
For those given to food aversions, dietary restrictions or control issues, there is perhaps no better place than Washington, where nearly two dozen local restaurants and chains offer some version of Chipotle’s have-it-your-way model.
“On this block, there are 12 to 13 fast-casuals” that fit that standard, points out Alex Alevras, who in July opened GRK (Chipotle of Greek food) not far from busy K Street NW.
There are Chipotles, too: 85 of them within a 25-mile radius of the District. Opened in Denver, Colo., in 1993 and now numbering nearly 1,500 stores, the chain is widely credited as a catalyst for the boom in fast-casual dining. By emphasizing sleek-looking restaurants and fresh ingredients, that business model, broadly defined to include such restaurants as Panera and Shake Shack, is trouncing the fast-food industry.
Chipotle’s most revolutionary gesture, however, was asking customers a simple question: “Burrito or rice bowl?” Even the most finicky eater knows that at the end of its point-and-you-shall-receive assembly line model, a pretty good meal awaits, in part because you all but cooked it yourself.
As fast-food sales remain sluggish, Chipotle is expected to rack up $4 billion in sales in 2014, a 377 percent growth since the company went public in 2006. Is it a surprise that so many imitators have sprung up in its wake?
Washington is a highly hospitable place to be a Chipotle. It is teeming with that demographic that everyone loves to hate: millennials, who are, according to market research firm Mintel, the biggest consumers of fast-casual fare. And then there are the notorious Type A’s, willing to embrace any model that will give them what they want in under five minutes.
Chipotle had such success here that in 2011 it chose the District as the site of its first test restaurant for ShopHouse, a customize-it-yourself Southeast Asian concept with such offerings as chicken satay and green curry.
“It’s a really culturally diverse city, and it had a burgeoning food scene,” says Tim Wildin, brand director for ShopHouse. Today, there are five locations in the region and three in Southern California.
For &pizza’s Lastoria, 34, and Salis, 31, Washington was a market not as wedded to its mom-and-pops as New York, where they had worked together on Lastoria’s first restaurant, a supper club called Corio in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. After it closed, Salis broached the idea of opening a fast-casual pizzeria. But New York wasn’t exactly starving for pizza. In Washington, they saw successful, like-minded eateries and rents they could swing. They opened &pizza on H Street NE in 2011, and a second location 11 months later.
Several factors, from concern about obesity and food-borne illnesses to the lingering effects of the recession, have driven diners to fast-casual restaurants, says Diane Badame, a food-industry veteran and academic director for graduate business students at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
“There’s this perception that fast food is junk food. People don’t have the trust in the fast-food restaurants they used to have,” says Badame, who teaches marketing to food industry executives.
If you’ve ever hit the drive-through — and let’s face it, you have — maybe you’re aware that it has long been possible to get your Big Mac sans the bun or your Doritos taco with beans instead of meat. But customization is the bane of fast-food restaurants, anathema to a business built on having your meal ready by the time you pull up to the window. “They didn’t promote it, and they didn’t like it, because it took longer,” says Badame.
“It was like, ‘Ohhh, yeah, she’s coming. I’ve gotta steam the vegetables instead of throwing them in the deep-fryer.’ ”
It has been 40 years since Burger King became the proto DIY restaurant by promising customers they could have it their way. Those were simpler times, though, when having it “your way” meant holding the lettuce. This summer, the fast-food chain unceremoniously ditched that maxim for something arguably more self-centered: “Be your way.”
It could be a mantra for the era of Chipotlification. To be your way is to have your say about spiciness, dairy, gluten, carbs — and offer no apologies.
The rise of fast casual in Washington can be viewed as both the glorious democratization of the foodie movement and a sign of its end times. On one hand, high-end dining’s tenet of fresh, locally sourced food has trickled down to the masses for less than a ten-spot. It has broadened the market, explicitly addressing the desires of vegetarians and gluten-free diners.
On the other, it displaces the chef, who in a more conventional restaurant would be ensuring that our meals don’t taste unbalanced. Ask for extra harissa and no tzatziki in the fast-casual world and, well, you have no one to blame but yourself. “When you start to add so many things on [your dish], you tend to lose the boldness of the flavor,” says &pizza’s Salis. Not that it matters much to those customers for whom “more” is the definition of a good meal, Lastoria adds.
Perhaps more worrisome is that fast-casual restaurants present the world’s cuisines — steak dinners, Thai street food, Northern Indian fare, Greek gyros — in lamentably reductive form: as a bowl filled with rice, plus your choice of protein.
In thousands of years of cookery, no one could have anticipated a day in which mozzarella cheese and tofu would be doused with chutney and served in a compostable bowl, with a kale add-in.
But Wildin of ShopHouse has a stake in accurately representing the flavors of Southeast Asia. He was born in Bangkok to a Thai mother and American father, and it’s his upbringing that informs the food ShopHouse serves. “We’re still using things like lemon grass and galangal and turmeric and Thai chilies — all these traditional ingredients — but we’re serving it in a way that’s very friendly for people,” he says. To help newbies order, he says, the staff at ShopHouse is trained in explaining the options. “For me, it’s all about people discovering this cuisine. However they’re going to get there is fine with me.”
Vik Singh, who opened the fast-casual Indian restaurant Spice 6 two years ago in Hyattsville, Md., credits the customize-your-meal model with opening doors for new consumers. “Thanks to Chipotle, people know what a rice bowl is now. A naan wrap? People know the burrito model already,” he says.
His family had wanted to open a sit-down Indian restaurant, but Singh wasn’t interested in spending all day overseeing servers and keeping tabs on the food costs of a giant menu. Instead he offers chicken and lamb, tofu and chickpeas, all prepared using traditional Northern Indian methods, and serves them on naan pizza. (Rice bowls are his biggest seller, however, and young women the most frequent customers.) This way, he says, he feels better about what he’s serving. “Right now we have five items on the menu — only five. If I were running a full-service restaurant, I’d have 30 items on the menu. How can you keep those items fresh?”
Market research firm Mintel, which looked broadly at the fastcasual industry last year, predicts an eventual slowdown in sales growth in the $30 billion market. But in Washington, the influx of DIY restaurants, several of which opened in the past three years, is holding strong. &pizza will open on K Street this week and at Reagan and Dulles airports in the next few months. Spice 6 has plans for a Dunn Loring, Va., outlet. ShopHouse just opened in Columbia and has two more locations planned. GRK has designs on more District locations, too. Washington might even eventually make a good home for another Chipotle of pizza: Chipotle. The company is a backer in Pizzeria Locale, a fast-casual pizzeria testing the waters in Colorado.
And maybe there’s room for more. In the line on a recent night at &pizza’s E Street shop, Nicole Lim of Bethesda said the appeal boils down to choice. “There’s a high level of customer satisfaction, because you get exactly what you want,” she said. “It’s easy. You pick out what you want, and you’re done.”
Not that she doesn’t care about flavors. Lim and her husband, a chef with his own fine-dining catering business, eat at more conventional restaurants, too, and nice ones at that. But this, she explains pragmatically before watching an employee pile chicken, artichokes and roasted red pepper onto her freshly made dough, “is gourmet enough.”
Ramanathan will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
A previous version of this story misstated the location of the first Chipotle and the age of &pizza founder Steve Salis.