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A New Breed of Restaurants 

They're fast, they're casual, they're everywhere

Move over cup holder cuisine. The hottest buzzwords in the food service industry are fast casual. This concept is sprouting up throughout Charlotte, primarily in newly constructed shopping centers, almost faster than I can keep track. The fast casual eatery is designed to combine speed and quality. These aren't restaurants per se, since food is more than likely not created in the kitchen, but rather shipped in from a commissary and either heated, baked, or assembled and then served on plastic, styrofoam, or paper. Diners either wait at the counter for their order to be completed or pick up the food after being called, at some places, on a loudspeaker. Diners must bus their own tables as well. Hmm. This sounds a lot like a cafeteria, or fast food, or for that matter a typical home kitchen. But evidently the appeal of this kind of eatery is drawing more and more franchisees into the food service business.

For the diner, fast casual offers a Disneyesque interior and made to order items, some with an ethnic or sophisticated bent, that are quickly produced. The check average is typically $7 to $10. There are no drive-throughs at these fast casual places, but there is an emphasis on take-out.

For the business owner, labor expenses are minimal since the kitchen doesn't need to be staffed by trained and expensive culinarians nor does the dining room require servers. Since much of the food preparation isn't done in-house there is not the expense nor maintenance of costly kitchen equipment. Thus potential franchisees arrive at the prized formula: high traffic volume, low food and labor cost.

Fast casual dining is thought to have its roots in Subway (1965, Bridgeport, Connecticut), Schlotzsky's Deli (1971, Austin, Texas), Boston Market (1985, Newton, Massachusetts -- now a wholly owned subsidiary of the McDonald's Corporation), and Panera Bread, which also does business as the St. Louis Bread Company (1981, Boston). More recent entrants are Baja Fresh Mexican Grill (1990, Thousand Oaks, CA. -- in 2002 became a wholly owned subsidiary of Wendy's International, Inc.), the Atlanta Bread Company (1993, Atlanta), Qdoba Mexican Grill (1995, Denver), Moe's Southwest Grill (2000, Atlanta), and Wolfgang Puck Cafes. Salsarita's Fresh Cantina is a Charlotte-based concept that started franchising in 2000.

Why fast casual? During the high flying mid-1990s, chefs became stars, wine became the drink of choice, and eating interesting yet expensive food was what one did. The American palate became more urbane: once the apple was tasted, there was no going back. Then the economic bubble burst. Folks lost their jobs, or portfolios, or -- even worse -- both. With less money in the pocket, but with the taste for market-fresh foods, the popularity of fast casual increased.

Two Carolina companies have entered into the fast casual fray: Carolina Cafe and Bakery and Bear Rock Cafe. Both concepts were created in Raleigh and both opened stores in Charlotte in December 2003.

Carolina Cafe and Bakery, in the Promenade Shopping Center off Providence Road and I-485, was founded in 1995 by Rob Autry, Jr., son of the former president of Fast Food Merchandisers and Hardee's Food Systems, and his wife Lisa. The interior has a Victorian/Low Country feel with overhead antique fans, slate floors, brick walls, and cushy booths. On a back wall is a thin screen monitor flashing menu choices and other advertisements. The bakery case is piled high with such goodies as their signature Carolina blue iced chocolate and vanilla cupcakes. Some, such as the apple basket, are better than others, such as the too dense chocolate croissant. Former St. Louis residents should note Carolina Cafe makes a Gooey Butter Cake, a regional morning favorite.

"We proof, knead, and shape all our breads", said Kerri Sterin, one of the managers.

The menu is filled with Carolina references: Charleston smoked turkey, coastal tuna salad. All of the paninis are made on sourdough which may work well with the portabella sandwich, but the "sour" taste conflicts with the eastern Carolina-styled pulled pork barbecue panini sandwich. The French onion soup is basic while the cracked wheat sunflower seed bread proved well matched with turkey.

At the entrance of newly opened Bear Rock Cafe is the sign: We stuff people, not bears. The interior has the mountain-lodge rustic look with a working stone-hearth fireplace, faux antlers chandeliers, exposed wood beams, and moose and bear elements throughout the dining area.

Bear Rock Cafe was created by Gary Bryant in a strip mall in Raleigh in 1997 and now has 185 stores across the country. The south Charlotte area is being developed by franchisee Les Forrester who moved to Charlotte four years ago.

"Fast casual caters toward folks who are looking for something other than fast food. It's for a family with kids who want a nice, comfortable atmosphere," he said.

Eleven bread varieties, including sunflower seed, croissant, whole wheat wrap, stone mill wheat, ciabatta, and focaccia, are baked in-house using commissary-produced dough. The hot sandwiches, such as the Reuben and Cristo, and eggs are heated in a microwave.

The catchy-named offerings are well comprised sandwiches: their Giant Panda Wrap was filled with tender chicken slices, a light sesame dressing, and crisp romaine while the Rockslide Focaccia was thinly sliced roast beef with horseradish on an asiago focaccia roll. The chicken and wild rice soup, however, was too thick to eat.

Even though the menu states that the apple pie is homemade, it "comes to us from a dessert company" according to Forrester. Other desserts, such as the cookies and brownies, are made outside the store, but baked on premises.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@

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