Banh Mi: The Next Burrito?

A first look at Chipotle’s Asian-themed eatery

By  Abbie Westra, Editor-in-Chief, Convenience Store Products

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Chipotle Mexican Grill last week opened the first outlet of its new Asian-themed restaurant in Washington, D.C.’s DuPont Circle. ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen follows the Chipotle format, where customers move along a line and customize their meal from component to component. But here, the barbacoa is replaced with grilled chicken satay, the tomatillo-green chili salsa swapped out for green curry.

Fare Digest breaks down ShopHouse’s menu and format, as well as the impact on and opportunity for the industry as a whole.

Menu and Format

The concept is a riff on traditional Southeast Asian “shophouses,” narrow buildings where the proprietors of the first-floor eatery would live in the floor above. A shophouse is “perhaps the most significant and iconic architectural style throughout Southeast Asia,” according to the ShopHouse website. Like Chipotle, ShopHouse’s decor is minimalist and industrial, with exposed light bulbs and rustic wares.

The flavors on the menu span Southeast Asia, from Thailand to Singapore, Vietnam to Malaysia. Customers first choose whether they’d like a banh mi Vietnamese sandwich or a rice bowl (with choice of brown rice, jasmine rice or rice noodles). Protein choices include grilled chicken satay, grilled steak, pork and chicken meatballs and organic ground tofu. Next come vegetables: wok-fried Chinese broccoli, spicy charred corn, eggplant with Thai basil, or long bean with caramelized onion. Customers then choose a sauce--tamarind vinaigrette, green curry or spicy red curry--and a garnish--green papaya slaw, pickles or herb salad. For texture, the customer’s choice of crispy garlic, crushed peanuts or toasted rice is sprinkled on top.

ShopHouse will also carry on Chipotle’s sustainability initiatives. Many of the decor components are recycled or eco-friendly, and the company plans to incentivize its farmer-partners to continue producing high-quality, organic ingredients. Tim Wildin, ShopHouse’s director of concept development, explained to The Huffington Post that ShopHouse has designed some menu items to incorporate traditionally lower-end cuts, which would otherwise be sold at a lower price to other companies. The pork and chicken meatball, for example, is made with pork shoulder and legs.

"Lower-end is a socioeconomic thing, it's not a culinary thing," Wildin said. “Less-expensive cuts aren't as fancy, but they often taste just as good.”

The company has been adamant that there will be no further plans for expansion until this single store proves itself.

The Asian Segment

Limited-service Asian restaurants have fared well recently. Last year, sales for the Asian segment grew 5.9%--faster than any other category, according to research consultancy Technomic. This year, sales at Asian dining spots are expected to rise 5%, compared with 4% for all limited- service restaurants.

“Established Asian concepts have been able to grow, while newer Asian concepts have also been emerging. Both limited- and full-service Asian concepts within the Top 500 were even able to grow sales and unit counts through a sluggish economy, signaling strong opportunities for chains within this underrepresented segment,” Mary Chapman, director at Technomic, stated in a recent report on the Asian segment. Following are some key findings from the report:

  • Among the Top 250 restaurant chains, there were 19% more Asian items on menus in the second half of 2010 compared with the same time period one year earlier.  
  • Between 2008 and 2010, the number of consumers who said they would be very likely to order a Chinese-style beef dish at a restaurant increased from 30% to 46%. 
  • Fifty-eight percent of surveyed consumers have tried and liked Asian sauces (teriyaki, soy, sweet and sour, Szechuan). These sauces were second only to barbecue in the number of consumers who said they had tried and liked an Asian sauce with a pork dish.

Should it grow, the biggest opponents ShopHouse will face include Panda Express and Pei Wei Asian Diner. Panda Restaurant Group Inc., which operates about 1,400 Panda Express locations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, had $1.4 billion in sales last year, according to Technomic. Pei Wei, owned by P.F. Chang’s China Bistro Inc., has about 173 U.S. stores.

Inspiration and Takeaway

As with many things in the foodservice industry, the concept of casual, quality Southeast Asian cuisine has trickled down from fine dining--which got its own inspiration from authentic ethnic noodle bars and banh mi shops. Urban Belly and Belly Shack in Chicago are just two examples of high-quality eateries specializing in noodle and rice bowls and sandwiches. Many food trucks have also taken to these convenient, relatively portable menu options.

To brainstorm how to incorporate the trend into your operation, dive deep into the ingredients themselves. Explore ways to add Asian elements to more familiar menu items:

  • Szechuan
  • Teriyaki
  • Sweet and sour
  • Sriracha
  • Chinese broccoli
  • Sesame (especially toasted)
  • Curry
  • Coconut milk
  • Chili
  • Lemongrass
  • Thai basil
  • Cilantro
  • Hoisin sauce
  • rice, udon or ramen noodles
By Abbie Westra, Editor-in-Chief, Convenience Store Products
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