More than 1,000 locations strong, Chipotle has transformed the assembly line mentality of the fast-casual restaurant (a hybrid of fast food and casual dining), allowing its customers to view, pick and choose the toppings they want on their Mexican meal as it moves along the counter — a customization we’ll refer to as the “Chipotle method.” According to groups like the National Restaurant Association, fast-casual is the fastest growing and most stable sector of the restaurant industry. With that knowledge in mind, locally based restaurant chains Fusian and Currito seized the opportunity to take sushi and the burrito, respectively, to the next level via customization.
Founded by brothers Zach and Josh Weprin and their childhood chum Stephan Harman, Fusian noticed a gap in fast-casual assembly line restaurants and went for it. “We saw this process happening across a lot of different cuisines — you could do burritos, you could do sandwiches, you could do Italian with Piada — but no one was doing it with sushi,” Harman says. “We saw a niche in the sushi world, because there were basically two options: You had high-end sushi or you had grocery-store sushi and nothing in between, so this filled that niche.”
In 2010, Fusian opened shop in downtown Cincinnati and has since opened locations in Hyde Park, Columbus, Dayton and will open a Kenwood location this spring. Taking advantage of the scarcity of fast-casual sushi joints, the friends pounced on the opportunity to bring fresh and sustainable ingredients to the consumer, and to prove fast food didn’t have to be bad food. What they discovered is people really liked it.
“When we first developed the idea, it kind of morphed from a casual sushi eatery to a buffet style to ‘Hey, let’s build a one-off sushi roll,’” Harman says. “And the reason behind that was to create diversity in a very simple menu.
We have a very simple menu ... but when you boil it down, the amount of combinations that you can do with the ingredients we prepare, it’s nearly endless.”
Hungry customers pick either a seaweed or soy wrap, choose a protein like tuna, chicken or tofu, then add veggies and a plethora of toppings to end up with 10 pieces of sushi for under $10.
“It’s kind of a light-bulb moment for the customer to say, ‘It can be whatever the hell I want it to be,’” Harman says.
Brothers Joe and John Lanni, owners of Bakersfield OTR and The Eagle, founded the “burritos without borders” franchise Currito in 2005. Chipotle has options limited to traditional Mexican ingredients, whereas Currito brings international flavors from Thailand, the Mediterranean and India to the fold. Instead of deeming it the “Chipotle method,” Joe likes to call it “Currito style.”
“I think this stems out of people wanting to control the process and have a lot of options,” he says. “It’s just attractive to consumers in general, being able to customize it and make it exactly the way they want.”
So far there are a few Curritos in Cincinnati — U-Square, Xavier, downtown — but they also can be found in Columbus, Cleveland, Mid-Atlantic states like Maryland and Pennsylvania, airports like Logan International in Boston, and two more will be opening in Kenwood and Florence, Ky. “When we put Currito together, we wanted to be in the burrito business,” Joe says. “A large reason is because of Chipotle. They’ve revolutionized the fast-casual industry here and we wanted to be a part of that but we didn’t want to be one of these ‘me too,’ just Mexican people who are doing just what Chipotle’s doing.”
Cincinnati isn’t the only city with fast-casual entrepreneurs changing the restaurant game with customized assembly lines. The Columbus chain Piada reimagines Italian street food, with two locations in town. Game-changers Chipotle, Quiznos and Noodles & Company were founded in Denver. In Louisville, Ky., you’ll find the only assembly-line KFC, called KFC Eleven, where customers can get healthier options like flatbreads and a Caribbean Tango grilled chicken bowl. Washington D.C. and Los Angeles are home to Chipotle spin-off ShopHouse, a build-your-own Asian bowl concept. Blaze, a fast pizza chain, bakes customized 11-inch pizzas in an open-hearth oven in three-minutes. (One will be opening in Mason soon.)
“I think people today, whether it’s because of an explosion of restaurants happening, because of the Food Network or whatever you want to credit it to, over the last 10 years the American palate has expanded,” Joe says. “People are eating stuff they never thought they’d eat before. Fusian — those guys do sushi in high school. When I was in high school, I hadn’t even heard of sushi.”
Even though Fusian cops the Chipotle/Currito style, they’re not interested in franchising. “It was never about how simple can we make this to be able to open as many restaurants as possible,” Harman says. “It was about touching each customer one at a time and creating great experiences for them that allowed us to grow.”