Keeping fast casual food fresh all day?

Joined Oct 11, 2016
Hi there. I’m new here, and I have lots of questions. I hope this is the correct forum to ask them in. I’m not a chef, but we have grand plans to open a small restaurant of our own, and I could use some advice from the pro’s now while we are still in the planning stages.

Our concept is basically a restaurant based on Mac & Cheese and Grilled Cheese, and other cheesy items, using the freshest ingredients we can find and staying away from the same-old-frozen stuff every corner pizza shop serves around here. We feel we have a really great mac & cheese recipe to use as our base, and plan to produce a variety of dishes based on it by adding in meats and other items. For example, buffalo chicken mac & cheese would get some fresh grilled chicken, some wing sauce and bleu cheese added in. We plan to have some standard flavors and also daily specials.

We have been thinking about trying to do this as a fast-casual kind of restaurant, with takeout too and also refrigerated mac & cheese already prepared for people to just grab & go and pop in the oven at home. We think our biggest clientele is going to be the lunch crowd and they will be in a hurry to get back to work. So my biggest question is, how do we make it fast and keep it high quality? My idea is kind of assembly line style.. we have al dente pasta ready to go. Scoop out a serving and add our cheese sauce, add in any meats and mix it all up. Top it with extra cheese and run it through a small conveyor belt oven/broiler to melt the cheese on top. Person on the other end of the oven grabs it, gives it to the customer and sends it on its way.

Would a method like this work? And, most importantly, how do you keep your ingredients and especially the cheese sauce from getting “crusty and old” after a while? (it’s basically just bechamel with cheeses added in). Should we just keep a smaller amount out there and replenish it often? I’ve been to many fast casual burrito places and usually there are a few things that you can tell are old, and the teenagers behind the counter don’t seem to care. That’s something we really want to be able to avoid. Also would it be better to have the “plain” mac & cheese already ready to go, and not keep the sauce and pasta separate in the beginning? Again, worried about things getting dried out and gross but I guess if we go through it fast enough it should be fine? Also don’t want the pasta go get all squishy if it sits too long.

Sorry this has been such a long post. Would really appreciate any advice any of you pros could share :)

Joined Aug 15, 2003
I think your method of production sounds reasonable. The biggest holdup would be how long the mac and cheese spends in the oven, and how are you going to get it from the oven to the customer? I assume you can't serve the pasta in the same container it goes through the oven in (I mean, you can't give someone a scalding hot metal container of pasta can you?) so you'll need to find a way to transfer the pasta from the oven container to the "to go" container or whatever. Make sure you think about this step because it is missing from your description. There are containers that can go into the oven, just make sure you factor them into your cost cause the money can add up so maybe this is what you are going to go with. 

You'll have to determine your own shelf life for the sauce. You'll need a steam well to hold it hot...and you'll have to figure out how long the sauce can stay in the steam well before it loses consistency. Like, Starbucks only keeps their brewed coffee's around for an hour or two before they brew a fresh pot, so the same idea applies. A cheese sauce should hold pretty well though. There won't be a "standard" rule for something like'll just have to keep tasting for a while as the cheese sauce sits in the well to determine after how long it starts to degrade and lose flavor. You'll need to set up a plan so that your hot food is held at the correct temperature for service and all that stuff--a health inspector is going to want to see that you'll have a plan to get hot food hot, and KEEP it hot, for service (temp logs, etc). Hopefully you'll be going through the food too fast to worry if it will be in the steam table for more than 4 hours. 

Is your pasta going to be held hot or cold? It'll last longer cold, so keep that in mind. Holding hot pasta is usually a nightmare cause it either bloats and gets overcooked or dries out. 

I think that heating up batches throughout service is the way to go, swapping out the container in the steam well when it needs it. 

I like the idea of a "build your own" pasta bowl thing kind of like a Subway or Chipotle where you go down a line and add different ingredients to a pasta dish. I think it could work. The key to freshness is replenishing often and not making too much at a time. Unfortunately there is no data for us to work off of for your restaurant since we have no idea how busy you will be, what sells best, etc. The best thing to do is just after your initial opening, to gather as much data and work out the kinks on the fly. 
Joined Oct 11, 2016
I imagined we would keep the pasta cold, but the cheese and meats warm.. theory is that the cold pasta would get warmed up just fine with the hot molten cheese sauce + oven ride. Maybe it would be fine if the meats were cold too? Don't have the equipment to test it, but I'm planning to give it a go with my regular home oven this weekend when we test out some more ideas. I want it to be fast though, since everyone is in a hurry, so I think it would mostly be more for melting the cheese on top.

As far as cooking goes, we were thinking of just using round aluminum take out containers to mix in the pasta and run through the oven. For take out, we'll just stick that in a small pizza box. For dine in, we'll transfer it to a deep dish or bowl. Like you said we don't want people to get burned. I know some restaurants serve food on hot dishes and tell you it's hot, but I don't like that idea because someone is always going to get burned no matter how much you warn them.

And yes like you said it would be like a Chipotle or Subway where you build your own or select our pre-made recipes. but we really want to focus on fresh and homemade ingredients. We also plan to offer "upscale" grilled cheeses (but will probably go for something more like paninis), and other fun cheesy items. but the mac & cheese would be the focus.

I was just thinking what might work is if we make a lot of the bechamel sauce in the morning, and then store most of it in the fridge.. then heat it up in smaller batches as needed and add in the cheese and then we're ready to go.

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