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Why so many fast-casual chains get started in Washington

Cava Grill, seen here in D.C.'s Tenleytown neighborhood, has opened around Los Angeles and will soon debut its first New York location. (Jeffrey MacMillan)
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D.C. residents who set foot in Philadelphia, Los Angeles or New York looking for lunch might recognize a few names: Cava Grill. Beefsteak. Sweetgreen. ShopHouse. &pizza.

All these fast-casual chains have at least one thing in common: They started in Washington and have since gone national.

Generally serving more expensive and less processed food than fast-food outlets, fast-casual eateries have become a rapidly expanding sector of the restaurant industry. Nowhere does this seem more apparent than Washington, where the area's demographics and mixture of urban environments have helped transform it into a reliable proving ground for new brands.

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Even when such markets as New York and Los Angeles are in the cards, companies view Washington as a more favorable option for getting started. Though he lives and works in New York and had the resources of the Chipotle behemoth, ShopHouse co-founder and brand director Tim Wildin said he still wouldn't have wanted to launch the Southeast Asian concept in Manhattan. New York is so dense and so "unlike anything else" in the country that Wildin said he felt it would be hard to get a read on how successful a new concept could be.

"New York posed an interesting challenge because occupancy costs here are so high," Wildin said. Commercial rents there are cost-prohibitive, he said, and "the rents needed to be decent, and it needed to give us a shot at surviving or excelling." Washington seemed to be a good alternative.

Despite the challenges of its restaurant zoning regulations, Washington has proven ideal for fast-casual restaurants because of its young-skewing demographics, with residents who are health-conscious in their dining and are willing to pay more for food they see as higher quality than fast food.

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Another contributing factor is the from-everywhere nature of the city and region, said Michael Lastoria, co-founder of &pizza, which recently announced it would be opening a location in Philadelphia this fall. (The company's first foray out of the immediate D.C. area was Baltimore.) Lastoria said that means you get a good cross-section of America, all in one place. "You're sort of proving that your cuisine or your restaurant or your concept can work with a lot of different types of people," he said.

The transient nature of Washington can also be a good thing, because "so many people come to D.C. and then disperse around the country," said Sam Oches, the editorial director of Food News Media, which produces QSR magazine, an industry publication. When people leave, they want to find the food they had in D.C. in their new home. When brands expand, those expats are a built-in audience that can help spread the word.

Lastoria said the Washington area is strong in urban diversity, as well, with dense inner suburbs (e.g. Clarendon or Bethesda) and traditional outer suburbs located within a relatively condensed area. Weeks away from opening a Chicago outpost of Sweetgreen, which already has locations in California, New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, co-founder Nicolas Jammet said the District is unique because it has mixed-use neighborhoods where people live, work and play, whereas other places are more segregated into separate locales.

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Cava Grill chief executive Brett Schulman said the mix of urban and suburban areas around Washington means there's plenty of different environments to test a concept and see how people incorporate it into their daily routines. Cava has been able to use what it has learned locally over the course of its expansion efforts, which will soon include six California locations and a first shop in New York.

Another factor in Washington's favor, according to Oches: "You have a very cultured, diverse crowd of people who have very mature food tastes." They're willing to try spicy foods or unusual ingredients, not to mention a different approach to dining.

"We have a very receptive audience in Washington," said Jim Biafore, the senior director of Beefsteak, chef José Andrés's vegetable-focused fast-casual brand. "They're not afraid to try new things."

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The decision to expand is not one any of the restaurateurs said they made lightly. Growing means scouring a potentially unfamiliar city for the right real estate and analyzing data on demographics and retail, among other things. Even after the decision is made, there are plenty of potential challenges, including finding new suppliers, recruiting qualified staff and ensuring consistency.

Beefsteak recently opened its first location in Philadelphia. Biafore said after perfecting the Beefsteak model around Washington, opening the Philadelphia shop made sense. The University of Pennsylvania location is almost a mirror image of the Foggy Bottom original, situated in an urban core near both a hospital and college campus.

"We always had plans to scale the business," Biafore said. "If you're in the restaurant business, you're in the growth business."

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