Pittsburgh restaurant scene: Fast food 2.0 sizzling as new restaurants open

Look to this month's openings for restaurants that are killing it in Pittsburgh. Last week, Burgatory opened its sixth location in Murrysville, the day after BRGR opened its fourth location in the Galleria of Mt. Lebanon. Earlier this month, Big Burrito opened the 13th Mad Mex in Erie. And in mid-December, the third location of Hello Bistro from parent company Eat'n Park will open Downtown.

These local restaurants are taking a page from national chains, borrowing from systems that streamline staff and menus, leading to higher profits than a traditional restaurant without the base ingredients of fast-food conglomerates. They also take measures to personalize experiences, blurring the line between fast food and full-service, offering satisfying meals and an inexpensive night out. And they're doing better than ever.

Welcome to fast food 2.0, or maybe it's 4.0, as the genre has been reinventing itself since Merriam-Webster added the definition in 1951. The trend here mirrors what's happening around the country. Although the new breed doesn't look like Wendy's or taste like McDonald's, it's bringing fast food back in a big way. For years, the fast-food industry has received criticism for disconnecting people from community and culture as well as playing a role in the obesity epidemic. But the updated fast-food market is on a mission to revamp its image from villain to hero.

National media are exploring fast food with renewed enthusiasm. Eater.com started the column "Life in Chains," and it features near-daily news on traditional chains and updated fast-food places. The site has also added an Eater award category called "The Chain That's Impossible to Hate," with Denny's as this year's winner. In late August, Denny's opened its first branch in Manhattan, which debuted with a cocktail bar.

The updated fast food menu can go one of three ways. It can copy old school hamburger or taco chains, with burgers, fries and shakes or tacos and burritos. It addresses health criticisms by offering choices: guilty pleasure dishes in smaller portions as well as healthy meals more appealing than yesterday's McSalads. The second option is the salad route, less of a trend in Pittsburgh but a growing market elsewhere. A third and less-explored direction focuses on international food beyond Tex-Mex, such as Greek sandwiches or falafel. Any of these menus may include more stylish items such as cold-pressed juice or locally brewed craft beer. And most of them boast conscientiously sourced ingredients, with a focus on humanely raised, organic food and occasionally local stuff.

The refocusing of fast food goes beyond saving people money to address values. And it's done with the backing of trusted names, whether they're local or national.

Chipotle Mexican Grill has seen a 31 percent increase in revenue for the third quarter of 2014, with the help of culinary director Nate Appleman, who built his name at San Francisco's A16 and won a James Beard award in 2009. The company uses 100 percent naturally raised pork, chicken and beef. The founder, Steve Ells, has testified before Congress to try to eliminate antibiotics in ranching. The menu prices fall between $7 and $10 for a main dish.

The salad-centric Sweetgreen, an East Coast restaurant, recently raised more than $57 million from investors -- Shake Shack founder and hospitality guru Danny Meyer, chef Daniel Boulud and former AOL Time Warner chair Steve Case, now the head of Revolution Health LLC -- to expand to the West Coast. Prices range from $4 for soup to $14 for a salad.

Local restaurateurs also lend strong reputations to fast food 2.0. Bill Fuller is respected as the head chef of Big Burrito, which has been pushing the growth of Mad Mex, with a price range between $4 for starters and $15 for fajitas. Acclaimed chef Brian Pekarcik of Spoon in East Liberty is the face of BRGR, where a burger starts at $8. At Burgatory, Mike Hanley and Jerry DiLembo, formerly of Oakland's Joe Mama's Italian Deluxe and Fuel & Fuddle, appeal to locals who went to the University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon University. They join Herky Pollock, executive vice president of CBRE, who helped kick off the renaissance of Downtown years ago. Specialty burgers range from $10 to $14.

Branding goes beyond food and prices to court lifestyle and pop culture preferences. In a commercial that debuted in 2012, Chipotle features political firebrand Willie Nelson singing Coldplay's "The Scientist" to highlight the restaurant's support of sustainable and organic farming practices. And at Sweetgreen, founders are turning the restaurant into a lifestyle brand with the help of exercise and yoga class giveaways and by hosting Sweetlife, a music and food festival with headliners such as Lana Del Ray, Foster the People and Fitz & the Tantrums.

Local fast food also embraces these practices, although it doesn't have teeth for large-scale celebrity endorsement. Burgatory gets witty with Christianity, infusing the allusion to souls to its locations. And BRGR drives with the underdogs with the BRGR food truck while feeding the flock with a stand at PNC Park.

Local fast food can use boosted profit margins to carry the more elevated eateries in a restaurant group. Big Burrito's Casbah or Soba in Shadyside, for example, can be helped by the popularity of Mad Mex. And Mr. Pekarcik said that because of BRGR's sales volume at the original location, "We can charge less for a dish than we should," at Spoon next door. The two restaurants share a walk-in refrigerator.

So far, sourcing is more of a selling point to Pittsburghers than whether a dish is healthy, which is why for now there are so few salad-focused places around. Hello Bistro courts two audiences with the slogan, "Burgers. Salads. Together."

Burgatory sources beef that hasn't been doctored with hormones. It's not local, but it is processed by a local butcher who grinds and delivers meat daily. The restaurant also sources from Wild Purveyors based in Lawrenceville. Elsewhere, BRGR buys a specialty blend from Curtze Food Service in Erie. And Eat'n Park locally sources at least 20 percent of its ingredients for all its restaurants.

Fast food restaurants that don't embrace some aspect of these values are increasingly called out. Chick-fil-A, for example, is lambasted for being anti-gay and, most recently, for supplying restaurants with chicken from farms that have been criticized for abusing animals.

When it comes to the new fast food, how a restaurant interacts with community, addresses health and protects the environment plays an increasingly important role. As more of these restaurants open in the region, expect them to jockey for loyalty as diners look for values in all forms.

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