From the outside looking in, Downtown Santa Monica's latest French-Mediterranean fusion restaurant, Massilia, looks like an upscale eatery with its elegant chandeliers, plush velvet sofas, and ornate metal work framing the expansive patio. Mid-century modern chairs flank sleek wooden tables with backgammon boards, while the bar is stocked with the finest liquors and wines.
But walk in and you soon sense that there's something different going on. A sandwich board sign stands guard at the entrance, reminding patrons that if they want to dine and drink, they'll have to order at the counter and take a number. From there, diners scout out their own table. Seeking an extra dollop of dressing on your Nicoise salad or another glass of water? Step away from the table and head back to the counter.
While the food is elevated along with the decore, Masillia isn't fine dining. It's fast casual, a rising trend in the food-service industry where diners do much of the work that servers do.
(Waiting for dishes to arrive at Massilia.)
Familiar chains like Chipotle and Tender Greens have perfected the model, which cuts down on costs, streamlines operations, and offers discerning, health-conscious customers who may be pressed for time the chance to chow down on higher quality food faster so they can get back to work or run errands. Masillia takes it a step further by offering a bit of elegance along with convenience.
"The cost of labor is probably the largest piece of the puzzle," said Hunter Hall, founder of the Santa Monica Neighborhood Restaurant Coalition, which formed to educate restauranteurs about the city's minimum wage law that gradually raises the hourly pay for food-service workers to $15 an hour by 2020 and mandate paid sick-leave.
"But then there's speed," Hunter added. "People can go to Whole Foods or Erewhon (Market) and get a good lunch for 10 bucks and you don't have the hassle of a cumbersome interaction with having a host check you in, find you a table, then wait for someone to take a drink order and then another 10 minutes for a server to come back and take your food order, then wait, then eat. A lot of people just don't have time for that these days, unless it's a business meeting or a special occasion."
The number of fast-casual chains is on the rise in the U.S., growing by 4 percent in 2017 for a total of 25,118 restaurants, whereas the number of full-service locations dipped by 2 percent for a total of 294,167, according to the fall 2017 census by The NDP Group, a leading global information company. The total number of restaurants in the U.S. reached 647,288 last year, a 2 percent decrease from 2016.
Restaurants like Massilia fall somewhere in between fast casual and fine dining, and are quickly becoming a popular business model in more sophisticated locales like Santa Monica, where consumers expect chef-driven, seasonal menus as opposed to standardized fare like a chicken burrito or a cheeseburger and fries.
Kevin Lazan recently opened a fast-casual restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard called The Gables, which specializes in home-style California cuisine and fresh-baked goods. The kitchen is led by a celebrated chef who sources locally from the Downtown Santa Monica farmers' market. The menu evolves as the seasons progress. Detailed Mediterranean tile work brightens up the patio, and a breakfast nook with comfy wicker chairs sets the scene for morning coffee dates. Guests order at the counter like they would at Starbucks, but The Gables is far from another Starbucks.
"The old lines are blurring," Lazan said. "We are providing fully composed dishes, but with the counter-order model. It's just easier from the customer perspective. You can get a great meal in under 45 minutes. And if you want to eat alone, it doesn't feel weird."
(The counter scene at The Gables. Photo provided by Kevin Lazan.)
Fast-casual is in many ways a response to an overstimulated and frenetic world, but also a symptom of the tech industry and the high cost of living that comes with it. San Francisco, home to Uber, AirBnB, and Dropbox, has witnessed an explosion in fast-casual restaurants, driven by the market forces that have made the Bay Area the most expensive place to live in the U.S. A shortage of affordable housing has made it difficult for restaurants to find servers and cooks. A low unemployment rate has increased competition for quality workers, with restaurants having to offer higher pay and more benefits to remain attractive options.
Commercial rents have also jumped in metro areas, putting a tighter squeeze on profits.
"When rent goes up in a commercial building it's not just 5 or 10 percent," said Sharokina Shams, vice president, public affairs for the California Restaurant Association. "It's going up by 30 or 50 percent. You can either like it, or be replaced with someone in tech or a jewelry store who can afford it. That has been hitting restaurants over the last five years."
Raising the price of an entrée isn't an option for most restauratuers, neither is purchasing lower quality ingredients. Customers won't go for that, hence fewer servers or none at all. Fast-food chains are taking it one step further by experimenting with technology allowing customers to order from a digital kiosk.
"The more limited service model cuts down on the number of [server] jobs, and I think that's disappointing," Shams said.
Fast-casual is here to stay, however, it will not completely dominate the industry. There will be those who prefer the extra attention and expertise they receive at traditional restaurants. Tourists will continue to support the old model as vacationers tend to splurge on eating out.
That being said, the next time you grab a bite, you may want to get used to having to work a little for your meal. It doesn't mean you'll be washing dishes in the kitchen, just walking them over there.