Fire at the ShopHouse

Fare editor goes behind the scenes at Chipotle’s new Southeast Asian prototype

Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP

Inside ShopHouse

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Scalability is a big deal. It might not be as alluring as talking about flavors, or branding, but it’s the crucial question when building a foodservice concept. Can the model be sustained as it multiplies?

That was my primary question when visiting ShopHouse, the new Southeast Asian concept from fast-casual master Chipotle. The Denver-based company has instilled its emphasis on high-quality ingredients and big flavors in ShopHouse, where burritos and tacos are swapped out for curried noodles and banh mi sandwiches. I visited the prototype, located in D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, twice while I was in town last week. The first visit showed me the menu was very good--it would be great, minus a few kinks. The second visit proved Chipotle built this concept with expansion in mind--just as soon as the American consumer is ready for it.

A meal at ShopHouse is similar to one at Chipotle: counter service, customized to order. 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). They then pick a protein: grilled chicken satay, grilled steak, pork and chicken meatballs, or organic ground tofu. Next comes one of four vegetables: wok-fried Chinese broccoli, spicy charred corn, eggplant with Thai basil, or long beans 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.

My first visit was purely as a consumer. After receiving an insider tip that the restaurant is still working on its banh mi and that the noodles can be overcooked by the time they reach your bowl, I opted for a brown rice bowl with the pork and chicken meatballs, eggplant with Thai basil, spicy red curry, green papaya slaw and crispy garlic. The bowl was packed with flavor--and heat. In fact, all the food I sampled at ShopHouse over my two visits--which was nearly everything--delivered considerable heat. I’ll never complain about a spice level unless it’s too low, but I can’t say the same for the rest of America.

The single service snag I experienced was a shortage of seating: From 12 to 1 p.m. on a Sunday, there was a steady cluster of customers awkwardly hovering over the dining area, food in hand, waiting for a seat to open up.

My second visit afforded a more behind-the-scenes look. As part of the International Foodservice Editorial Council’s annual conference, held last week in Washington, D.C., a group of attendees were allowed a look at the front and back of the house.

The 1,100-square-foot store features a make line similar to Chipotle’s--though with sharp-looking All-Clad pans keeping the food warm. Behind the make line is a plancha, or flat-top grill, where the chicken and steak is cooked after it’s marinated. A two-bay fryer gives the meatballs their crispy exterior, and a wok station makes for the hardest job in the store, one employee told us. Downstairs is an area for prepping all the vegetables, a walk-in cooler and a two-door freezer.

A big difference between Chipotle and ShopHouse, according to one of our tour guides, is the prep. Chipotle’s menu requires a lot more food prep ahead of time, while ShopHouse requires more cooking throughout service. Whether that gets streamlined as the chain expands will be a big component of its scalability--though these first few weeks of ShopHouse’s existence and the deep lines it’s faced every day is a pretty good test of endurance.

Meanwhile, the company seems to be sourcing its ingredients with scale in mind. All sauces and marinades--the curries, tamarind vinaigrette and the sauces for the veggies--come from a commissary in Denver. The meatballs come in from a manufacturer, as does the banh mi bread, which arrives par-baked and frozen.

On the record, Chipotle has no plans yet for expansion of the ShopHouse brand. A few of my companions noted the concept would be a hard sell in their markets, where the demographic prefers a more familiar, less aggressive flavor profile. After experiencing the spice factor of that menu, I don’t disagree. But how many of us thought the same thing about Chipotle when it opened its first store in 1993? It took six years for Chipotle to open a store outside of Colorado; one of the first outposts was in my home base of Minneapolis. As a consumer with a proclivity for Southeast Asian flavors in a convenient, customizable form, I hope it doesn’t take ShopHouse that long to get up here.

Abbie Westra, CSP/Winsight By Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP
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