What fast casual trend or brand is batter-up? It's a common refrain. Chipotle went from a couple of shops to taking over corners across the States in just a few years. Same goes for Shake Shack. Chipotle even thinks it knows what the next Chipotle is, starting up the Asian fusion ShopHouse and investing heavily in fast pizza-makers Pizzeria Locale. It's really anyone's guess. So here's mine: Taïm, a two-location falafel shop in New York City.
I reached out to Patricia Cobe, senior editor at Restaurant Business for her take. "The big fast-casual trend is in build-your-own pizza: customized assembly-line style à la Chipotle by workers behind a counter, then baked in two minutes in super-hot 800°F ovens," she tells me. "Players like Blaze Pizza, Pie Five, Pieology, Persona Pizzeria, and MOD Pizza are some of the ones that are expanding." No doubt, Patricia. We're on that one. So, what else?
She points me to the magazine's rankings for emerging fast casuals then says, "Another very active category is the 'healthy' fast casual concept, such as Freshii, Sweetgreen, Veggie Grill, LYFE Kitchen, and Tender Greens."
My girlfriend and I went to Roast Kitchen last night. It was dank. But, how about besides European, American, or straight-up boring eats? "In the Mediterranean space, examples are Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill in Denver, Roti here in Chicago, and Pita Pit are a few examples," Cobe tells me. "But there's room for growth here, as Asian and Mexican fast casuals dominate in the 'ethnic' category." Now we're talking.
The Mediterranean fast casual market is exploding. Aside from what Cobe mentions, VertsKebap, Chickpea, The Hummus & Pita Co., Daphne's, Zoës Kitchen, Taboonette, and Maoz have all thrown their keffiyehs and tembel hats into the ring, joining old-school, quick-serve outposts like Mamoun's. Whoosh. So what makes Taïm stand out from the fray?
Like Chipotle, Taïm (pronounced "tah-eem" for the Hebrew for "tasty" or "delicious") has a super-slim menu. The focus is on focus: falafel and that's about it. But, it's the best falafel. At least I think so.
I called up chef and co-founder Einat Admony (her husband Stefan Nafziger is the other) and asked if she had any plans to expand the sparse menu. She started off by saying there had actually been discussions to cut it down. "We've talked about reducing the flavors to one type of falafel," Admony tells me. (Taïm has three.) It didn't get too far, alas, and she's thinking about adding more seasonal fare and salads. Very matter-of-factly, she adds, "I don't know if we are going to change much, the concept is working well." Did I mention it's always busy? The place gets absolutely slammed.
Taïm only has two locations: a tiny, six-seat alcove on Waverly Place in the West Village and a more sizable (but still small) joint eastward on Spring Street. Expansion comes to mind, 10 years after the shop first opened. I ask Admony for her plans. "It's the million-dollar question," she replies. "We can stay the way we are. Or we can go become an empire around the country. I can't answer that question because we are wondering that ourselves." Okay, hmm. I press her for more. She says the next step would be for Taïm to open "three to five" more locations in New York City. What neighborhood is next? "Probably Williamsburg," Admony says.
I grew up in Colorado. I used to eat at the first Chipotle with my grandfather on the reg, then the second location became our spot: It was closer to our neighborhood. For all of the expansion Chipotle has seen in recent years, the company started out slowly. (I even worked in the corporate offices for two summers, early on, when we were counting by ones to 12.) Over-expansion is a killer in the restaurant industry and Taïm is clearly avoiding moving too quickly. Smart move.
Admony also runs Balaboosta and Bar Bolonat, two sit-down restaurants. Born in Israel, Admony has worked in nice spots for much of her career. And her high-minded recipes find their way to Taïm. Sound familiar? Steve Ells, Chipotle's founder, studied at the Culinary Institute of America and was a sous chef at Stars. Shake Shack's Danny Meyer is, well, Danny Meyer.
Okay, so, falafel is fried, but it's also damn good for you. Also, Taïm is 100 percent vegetarian and the falafel itself is gluten-free -- making it more universal than other competitors.
And that's all that really matters.
Photos via Colin St. John
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