Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., president and founder of Healthy Dining, a nutrition-related marketing and consulting firm, interviews Jesse Gideon, corporate chef and COO of Fresh to Order, about the “fast-fine” concept based in Atlanta. This interview and others can be seen at Healthy Dining’s Restaurant Nutrition News & Insights .
Hi Jesse. I’m excited to talk with you more about Fresh to Order, or F2O for short. I’m especially interested in finding out how you are so successful at serving ‘fine food fast.’ That’s hard to do!
You’re not kidding (laughing)! We have forged our own new category. We call it ‘fine fast’ because our pledge to our guests is that we are a notch above fast casual, and they will receive the freshest, finest ingredients in less than 10 minutes for around $10. That has been the secret to our success.
• Breakout Brands: Fresh to Order 
• NRN names Fresh to Order a 2013 Hot Concept winner 
• Healthy Dining at NRN.com 
That is exactly what so many people are looking for: fresh, high-quality offerings that are reasonably priced, even when in a hurry. How can you do all that and do it well?
We start simply with high-quality, fresh ingredients and then allow them to speak for themselves. That means we don’t need to cover up or add masking flavors by adding fats or sodium to make it taste better. Instead, we rely on the natural intense flavors of our ingredients. Maintaining that integrity helps with consistency and speed and also minimizes prep and labor costs.
We have great relationships with our suppliers, and that means they treat us well. They know we pay more for high quality and they deliver it to us. It costs us more but it is worth it to us and to our guests.
That’s great. Tell us how you started F2O.
I was the corporate chef at Brookwood Grill, a fine-dining restaurant in Atlanta owned by Pierre Panos. Pierre and I started talking about F2O back in the early 2000’s. We knew there was a market for finer dining done healthier and without the expense or time, especially for lunch. We talked a lot about how to take Brookwood’s success and transform that quality and guest experience in less than 10 minutes for less than $10. The more we talked, the more we found the inspiration for Fresh to Order.
We launched our first location in midtown Atlanta in 2006, and now we have eight locations with ten more in development.
I hope you are coming to California!
We’d like to get to California, but right now we are focusing on the east coast, moving into Florida, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Mid-Atlantic states and continuing to expand in the Atlanta suburbs. We have a few more east coast states on the radar, but we are keeping that info close to our chef coats.
That’s exciting. You have some really great items featured on HealthyDiningFinder.com . How important is health and nutrition to Fresh to Order and to your guests?
It is very important, and it’s easy for us to produce. Health is a byproduct of how both Pierre and I like to eat. Our emphasis on local, fresh ingredients that are minimally processed gives us a great variety of healthful options.
We start with lean proteins like fire-grilled chicken breast, blackened lime shrimp, bourbon grilled salmon, house-roasted turkey, grilled filet, almond-rosemary-crusted tuna and seared tofu. Then we serve those in a panini, on a salad or as a main entrée.
Tuna, chicken dishes sell well
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What are some of your best-selling items?
Our guests love our Asian Salad with Seared Tuna. We hand-crush almonds with rosemary and sesame seeds. Then we sear the tuna and serve it over mixed baby greens with candied walnuts, tomatoes, sesame seeds and avocado. Then we top it with some Mandarin oranges and mixed nuts. It has a really nice texture and beautiful presentation.
Our Fire Grilled Chicken also sells like gangbusters; guests love chicken. The chicken is sourced locally and always fresh. We then marinate it and grill it on open flames in our open kitchen in front of you. We then serve it with wheat berry rice and a balsamic cabernet reduction. Another favorite is our Bourbon Marinated Salmon Panini. The salmon is always fresh and cut in house and then served on a whole wheat flat bread Panini with fresh avocado, lettuce, tarragon aioli and a signature roasted corn cilantro relish — lots of texture, bright flavors; a fantastic combination.
You better believe it is; it is our promise. It’s all in the design and workflow of the kitchen to maximize efficiency. F2O has really coined a new niche, ‘fast fine’ dining. It’s a step above fast casual. We even joke internally that this niche, if done right, could be the casual-dining killer.
Tell us about your guests.
Our guests are amazing. They range from tech-savvy college students who are really interested and informed about food and nutrition to athletes and older adults. We skew to females, but guys like to eat where women are so we snag them as well by default. We also have a lot of families; moms typically decide where to dine, and they like the quality, healthfulness and price point for their family.
Our guests are looking for something nicer than fast casual. They are looking for more variety and a nicer environment. F2O is recognizable and familiar but with a really unique twist.
So you said that health is important to your guests. Tell us more about that.
We know that health and nutrition are very important to a lot of our guests. But they are not obsessed with it. I think that freshness, flavor and quality is most important to them.
We also invested in some self-service nutrition kiosks because we get so many questions about nutrition, and that puts a lot of pressure on our wait staff. The kiosks are tablets that show photos and descriptions of our menu items and the nutrition information.
We have been able to look at the data and see what our guests are looking for. Some want high protein, others low carb and others are interested in calories. There are a variety of needs. We like the kiosks because it helps us give consistent nutrition information to our guests and empowers our guests to find what they are looking for.
Sodium is a hot topic now. Are you hearing from your guests that sodium is important to them?
We typically don’t use a lot of added salt, and we don’t have products sitting on a shelf or in the freezer, so our sodium levels are naturally low. My view is that salt doesn’t always make food taste better — salt makes food taste saltier. Salt can easily be abused if you are not careful, so you have to respect it and be mindful of it.
When you come down to it most people don’t want salty; they want flavor. They want their food to taste great and be memorable, and there are so many ways to add flavor besides salt. You can add flavor through fresh fruit or vegetable juices, vinegars, herbs and spices. These all add punch or a bright flavor. That is really what keeps our guests coming back, that we mind the little details and ensure our food is fresh, healthful minded yet flavorful.
Contact Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., at [email protected] .