- Danny Meyer has abandoned the fast casual model at his year-old Roman pizzeria, Eater reported. Martina opened in August 2017 with the ambition of churning out up to 90 pies per hour. It closed last weekend to augment the food and drink menu, re-opening Dec. 3 with table service.
- The original model functioned similar to Meyer’s famed Shake Shack: guests ordered at the counter and retrieved their own pies with a buzzer. Helmed by the owners of full-service pizza restaurant Marta, the new Martina offers "an exciting new menu and full service style," Meyer said in an Instagram post.
- Pieology also closed its New York City locations, though Blaze and &pizza live on, noted Eater. In a city slathered in pizza slices, Martina failed to garner high praise for its pies and didn't strike critics as particularly fast.
Chef Nick Anderer wanted Martina to bring more pizza to more people, slimming down his full restaurant menu to seven pies, three salads, two large hot plates and two snacks. The two-minute bake time for his thin crust pizzas made that 90-pie-per-hour goal attainable, but that rate is no match for fast casual pizza competitor Blaze’s 175-per-hour churn.
The "fine casual" concept, as Anderer described it, kept the kitchen on par with a full-service restaurant where everything is cooked to order. Fine casual or fast fine models blend elements expected in full-service dining with the speed of fast casual or even fast food. At Souvla in San Francisco or ChiKo in D.C., customers find a seat and a server brings their food to the table and refills drinks, creating an air of hospitality without the cost of a robust front-of-house staff.
Having a roving server probably helps alleviate customer discomfort, but it doesn't make the food any cheaper. Martina's pizzas cost $7 for a standard margherita to $11.50 for specialty pies, but they only serve "one not-too-hungry" person, according to the New York Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells. Similarly, Nation’s Restaurant News reported that the average check at Taco Dumbo in Manhattan, which calls itself fast casual, exceeds $20, thanks in large part to alcohol.
These fast fine concepts can prove particularly tricky for upscale speedy spots looking to spurn the assembly line. Where staff exists mainly behind the counter or in the kitchen, the setup portends that employees and customers have but three interactions: order and pay, pick-up and thank you. The transactional nature also could confuse customers. Is it fancy enough for a date? Is it appropriate for a family? Is it more fun at lunch or happy hour than for a full dinner experience?
Some customers also might feel awkward getting up in the middle of dinner and ordering another beer at a cash register. Others still might decide the prices of higher-quality food and a trendier atmosphere don't align with the lack of table service. It's also not necessarily fast, as Wells noted in his review of Martina, where his order took 19 minutes to arrive on one visit. He could have finished his glass of wine in that time.
The changing format at Martina could signal an identity crisis in the booming fast casual segment, expected to grow 7.5% this year. There appears to be a ceiling for how much consumers are willing to pay for good food without table service. As labor costs continue to rise, restaurateurs will probably keep trying to make it work, though they, too, could hit a ceiling of sorts. Talented chefs and top-notch servers might not be willing to ditch the excitement — and in some cases the pay — of traditional restaurants.