Meatloaf. Meatballs. Waffles. Cupcakes. Fried Chicken. Sliders. These foods don't necessarily go together. But when it comes to one of the hottest trends in restaurants, they don't need to.
From market booths and food trucks to spaces that rival the seating of any full menu restaurant, these single-minded spots steal the show for their devotion to just one thing. Judging by the number of single concepts popping up coast-to- coast, these culinary stars don’t need a supporting cast.
Some single concept owners are born from a popular menu item at one of their existing restaurants or when chefs dip a toe into the restaurateur pool. For many, though, the choice to focus was a calling.
"I'm doing what I am passionate about. We are focusing on what we are good at."
--Torya Blanchard, owner of Good Girls Go To Paris Crepes
Torya Blanchard, a former French teacher who spent a gap year working as an au pair in France, is not trained as a chef. But today she is the owner of Detroit’s Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes, serving crepes with a $20 check average. “I am doing what I am passionate about,” she says. “We are focusing on what we are good at.”
A knack for making beg-worthy pudding led Clio Goodman to open New York’s Puddin’. While working as a private chef, Goodman’s client kept demanding more and more pudding. Soon, friends and family joined the chorus, leading her to open Puddin’ two years ago with the help of that former client, who became her business partner.
Owner Matt Fish turned his childhood favorite into a four-location grilled cheese concept in Cleveland, Melt Bar and Grilled. “I grew up making grilled cheese with my mother, but I realized that a really busy person on the go can eat one and jump in the car fast,” he says. Passion certainly helps, but the ongoing success of single concept restaurants is usually a matter of enticing customers with a niche market. “There is this niche, and we have to have people come specifically to us,” Goodman says, adding that pudding appeals to people’s inner 4-year-old as well as their drunk, late-night cravings, giving her brisk business from the beginning.
A Singular Paradox
While it might seem easier to focus on one dish rather than a full menu, single concepts serve more than one item. In fact, there can be as many permutations as traditional menus.
Puddin’ offers 11 pudding choices, from $5 to $9.75, along with 15 premium toppings like lime angel food cake, old-fashioned peanut brittle and salted caramel sauce for an additional $1. Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes offers typically 50 crepes daily—20 savory and 30 sweet—for $5 to $9.
Such choice demands an inventory list with the breadth of any full service operation, which is why many single concept operations have sideline menu options. The draw of Melt Bar and Grilled is its 20 varieties of grilled cheese sandwiches, but the menu also features burgers, soups and salads.
“Not every single person wants to eat grilled cheese every day,” Fish says. “We bucked the trend. We have so much variety within our concept.”
More Than One Advantage
Depending on the menu and equipment processes, a single concept operation can offer significant labor savings.
Every item at Melt Bar and Grilled is made exactly the same way, Fish says. “We have all the traditional stations (fry, expediter, saute) but instead of a traditional set-up where one station prepares one item, each person has something to do with each item.” This system removes morale issues on the line and helps improve food quality and ticket times, he says.
For other narrowly focused restaurants, a limited menu can lower some costs. At Good Girls Go to Paris, Blanchard doesn’t have a chef, so her overhead is lower than a traditional restaurant, even if her food costs are not. A shop that only needs a walk-in and a fryer might have lower costs than a single concept spot trying to offer a full range of options, albeit through their carefully defined lines.
Additional space means more room to execute quality add-ons, such as duck confit, braised corned beef and fresh lobster at Macbar, where the average check is $12.
“Twelve flavors [of mac ‘n’ cheese] are a lot. We need a full kitchen,” says Michael Ferraro, Macbar’s executive chef and partner. “Someone makes braised dishes and sauces. You do not whip up a batch [of duck confit] quickly.”
Though a concept might seem singular in theory, a single concept restaurant is not limited in menu options or experiences.
“Our culinary palate runs deep,” Fish says. “Grilled cheese is just the avenue. We have not run into anything we cannot sell.”
Margaret Littman eats, writes and lives in Nashville.
Check out these single-concept destinations drawing attention across the country.
Viva Las Arepas, Las Vegas
Chicken and waffles
Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles, Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz.
Rice to Riches, New York
Dosas (Indian crepes)
The Dosa Factory, Houston
BadHappy Poutine Shop, Chicago
Salad stuffed baguettes
Bread Zeppelin, Irving, Texas
Potatopia, New York City