How to thrive in today’s fast-casual restaurant industry

Secrets of success from the founders of Dos Toros, Ample Hills Creamery, and more

Countless entrepreneurs start new food businesses every year. Many fail. While it’s impossible to follow someone else’s recipe for success measure by measure, there’s much to be learned from the people behind fast-casual restaurants that have flourished, like San Francisco-style taqueria Dos Toros, Brooklyn-bred ice cream company Ample Hills Creamery, vegetable-forward N.Y.C. eatery Mulberry & Vine, and salad startup Chopt. Recently, the founders of these industry leaders gathered to discuss how they grew their businesses in a panel led by Dos Toros cofounder Leo Kremer and held at WeWork Now in New York.

From starting small to following your passion (within reason), here’s their advice on how to make a modern food business succeed.

Prioritize quality ingredients

The more local and seasonal ingredients are, the better the product is. That’s just science. And the simpler your menu is, the more important it is to source high-quality ingredients. For Dos Toros, which offers only a few menu items at a time, this is key, says cofounder Oliver Kremer. “It’s just about nailing each recipe as much as we possibly can,” he said. “It comes down to sourcing incredibly high-quality ingredients and just not compromising when it comes to flavor.”

Ample Hills Creamery founder Brian Smith also preaches the gospel of superior ingredients at his scoop shops. “At the end of the day, you want good quality—the milk, the cream, the sugar, and the eggs,” Smith said. “It’s critical that that’s good.” But what his growing franchise really nails is making all the cookie dough, peanut butter cups, and cake pieces that go into the ice cream flavors from scratch. “We’re as much a bakery and candy shop as we are an ice cream shop,” he said. “That part of the job actually takes a lot more effort and a lot more work than to make the ice cream.”

Let company culture evolve over time

Ice cream legend Ben & Jerry’s didn’t develop its mission statement until the business had already been around for eight years. Knowing that bit of trivia inspired Smith when he and his wife opened Ample Hills. “We didn’t think about culture at the beginning,” he said. “It was only three to four years in, after we’d opened the third or fourth shop, that we started to step back from the day to day to codify what was important to us. That piece really takes effort.”

After spending time, energy, and money to figure out what her employees actually wanted, Michelle Gauthier of Mulberry & Vine developed a litmus test for making decisions: “‘Is it fun, and is it easy?’ We have to say yes to both of those if we are going to make a change,” she said. “Now we have a great culture.”

Kremer’s approach to creating and maintaining a healthy Dos Toros company culture revolves around a favorite quote: “The guest experience will never rise above the team experience.” He says, “We try to take that to heart, ultimately simplifying processes in the jobs of crew members so they can delight our guests.”

Lead by example

Kremer tries to spend time in a Dos Toros location three to five days out of every week on the line, rolling burritos himself. “It sets the tone that we ‘exist to roll burritos,’ and it sends that message to our guests,” he said.

Chopt CEO Nick Marsh leads with two guiding principles: freedom and accountability. “I give you the opportunity to stretch your wings,” he says. “To do more than you expected and to have the freedom to grow.”

Make sure your passion is profitable

The road to financial ruin is paved with passionate entrepreneurs who put their whole hearts into their businesses and still fail. The real talk, according to Smith, is doing your homework first, to make sure your passion is going to get other people excited, too.

“If I told you I was passionate about asparagus ice cream and opened a shop with 18 varieties of asparagus ice cream—that would be a bad idea,” he said by way of example. “You hear people coming up, and they have a lot of passion for xyz, but are other people gonna share that passion?” He cites the nearly two years he spent sampling ice cream at shops all over New York City before opening Ample Hills. He did his homework and made certain his passions were in the right place before going all-in.

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