Let's face it, chain restaurants are ubiquitous. And people that don't eat at chains are the exception rather than the rule. Chains get a bad rap. They're associated with poor quality, highly processed foods, with little nutritional value. I've even chronicled some of them in my Bad Chains series.
But good things are happening. Consumers are demanding better quality food, while still desiring the convenience and familiarity that chains deliver, and restaurants are responding. Just recently, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell announced they are removing artificial ingredients from their food. Panera has pledged to do the same. Even Chipotle—arguably the leader in the "better fast food" category—has announced it will no longer use ingredients that contain GMOs.
As someone who loves food, I'm fascinated by the restaurant industry. I like to stay informed of what's new and interesting, and I'm especially interested in the "fast casual" segment. Fast Casual are those that serve a better quality product than say McDonald's or Burger King or Wendy's, (which are considered "QSRs" or quick service restaurants, in industry lingo) but are still very much fast food. Chipotle is the poster child of the fast casual genre. Others include names such as Smashburger and Burger 21, both recent additions to the Capital Region.
Here are some of the fast casual chains I'd like to see come to the Albany area. These are all restaurants that in some way are on the leading edge of the fast casual trend, or serve food that is just plain delicious.
Bareburger has taken the "better burger" concept to the next level. Much of the menu is organic and non-GMO. Their beef for example, is both grass fed and organic. For those items that are not organic, they are all natural and minimally processed. All of their meats are free-range, antibiotic and hormone free. The menu varies a bit from location to location, because they partner with local merchants for things such as the pickles, ice cream for the shakes, and cheese, among others. While they have the standards on the menu that we all love, like fries and onion rings, many of the the menu items are creative, different, and interesting. With things such as bison, pickled green tomatoes, manchego cheese, and duck bacon to name a few. These guys are on the cutting edge of the better burger trend.
Live Basil Pizza
Live Basil Pizza is founded by the same people that created Smashburger (another chain I like). The Live Basil name is no euphemism or marketing schtick. The restaurants all have live basil plants from which the leaves are picked fresh just before they are put on the pizza.
I'll let Live Basil speak for themselves, as I think they sum up the chain best. From the website:
Made right in front of you, in just a couple of minutes, for the freshest pizza you’ll ever eat. Our hand crafted, delicious pizza, made with only the finest ingredients - San Marzano organic tomatoes, locally sourced produce, all natural meats and cheese - is made to honor the heritage of Naples. Live Basil Pizza is the place for fast, fresh, great tasting, hearth-baked authentic Neapolitan pizza with an engaging experience for lunch or dinner.
OK, Chik-fil-A is technically a QSR and not a fast casual chain, and they are on the cutting edge of nothing, except freaking delicious chicken.
I travel to Atlanta a few times a year for work, and when I arrive, I make a beeline for Chik-fil-A. Make no mistake about it. Chik-fil-A's sandwiches are super tasty. There are dozens of recipes on the internet that attempt to duplicate their chicken, but none come close. (The general belief is the chicken's yumminess is a result of a pickle juice brine).
The company is growing by leaps and bounds. And it's my hope the chain will be in Albany soon. They currently have a few locations in NJ, Mass, and just one location in NYC. But I've read they plan to expand in a big way in NYC. Albany can't be far behind.
Habit Burger Grill
Habit Burger has been voted the best burger chain in America, besting such greats as Five Guys and In-N-Out Burger. I don't know much about the chain, other than their burgers are very much in the style of In-N-Out and Five Guys. That is, thin patties cooked on a flat top. This is the burger style I enjoy most.
I'm attending a wedding in Phoenix next week (Chandler, Arizona to be exact—a suburb of Phoenix) and Habit Burger has a location there. YAY! I have many must try restaurants on my list, so I'm not sure if I'll make it to Habit Burger, but it's definitely on my radar. Maybe after the wife is asleep in the hotel one evening, I can sneak out and grab a Habit Burger! (Shh, don't tell her).
JJ's Red Hots
JJ's is a very small Hot Dog chain out of Charlotte NC. Currently they only have a couple of locations, but plan to expand. They are making waves because of attention to detail, quality and creativity. The Capital Region is of course home to it's own unique hot dog style, the mini-dog. But I'm not aware of any local hot dog places that are placing an emphasis on creativity and quality like JJ's is. (If there is, please correct me). On my recent trip to Chicago, I had a Chicago style dog and fell in love with it. JJ's makes a good one, and it'd be great to have someplace in the area to grab a really good Chicago dog once in awhile.