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Asian Box aims to spice up fast casual

The Asian fast-casual niche continues to heat up with a new concept called Asian Box set to debut this month in Palo Alto, Calif.

Asian Box is being developed by San Francisco restaurant consultant Frank Klein of FK Restaurants & Hospitality, along with his business partner Chad Newton and Newton’s wife Grace Nguyen, a former chef of the acclaimed Slanted Door and Out The Door concepts in San Francisco.

It is scheduled to open on Feb. 14 and already has attracted venture capital funding that will allow the brand to multiply as one of a number of fast-casual “box” concepts planned by Klein with the same model but different cuisines.

Under parent company BoxEats Holding Co., Klein in October also opened American Box, an upscale organic sandwich and salad concept in San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Klein also is working on a third box concept he calls “so fantastically simple and genius,” but declined to reveal its culinary theme.

A common thread for each concept will be a focus on sustainable and local ingredients, freshness and healthfulness, as well as eco-friendly packaging, Klein said.

“We’re asking the question, ‘What’s in Your Box?’” he said. “‘What are you eating? What are you bringing home to your family?’”

Asian Box is targeting an Asian niche within the fast-casual segment that no chain successfully has claimed as a national brand, Klein said.

The 173-unit Pei Wei Asian Diner, for example, has struggled with declining sales and recently announced plans to open an even more limited-service version with a lower average check to compete more directly with growing fast-casual players.

Chipotle Mexican Grill last year opened ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen in Washington, D.C., in September 2011, and has a second location planned. Observers see ShopHouse as having national potential as a secondary brand for Denver-based Chipotle, but growth is expected to be slow.

Klein noted that he released Asian Box’s menu in December of 2010 long before ShopHouse opened, and his new concept aims to do things differently.

“We respect the Chipotle brand tremendously, and I own its stock,” he said.

However, ShopHouse offers what Klein describes as a “cafeteria style cook-and-hold” model. “We don’t think that’s the best way to do Asian food,” he said.

At Asian Box, dishes are cooked to order, more in the style of street food, Klein said.

“I think people will wait for that type of freshness and choice,” he said.

In addition, chains such as Pei Wei, have attempted menus that broadly fuse the cuisines of China and Japan with those of Southeast Asia, which Klein said also has been a mistake.

“People want more clearly defined and authentic flavors,” he said.

Asian Box will focus mainly on the cuisines of Vietnam and Thailand, and include authentic recipes from Nguyen’s Vietnamese grandmother.

Guests create their own “box,” or bowl served in a box, by selecting a salad, noodles and savory vegetable broth, and brown or white rice. Main options include range-raised coconut-soaked pork; all-natural six-spice marinated beef; and cornmeal and herbed baked tofu.

Sides will include shrimp or tofu spring rolls, Asian slaw and pickled vegetables, as well as such beverages as a housemade lime soda with lemongrass, iced Vietnamese coffee and Thai iced tea.

Condiments and sauces are house made, including the traditional sriracha, as well as a signature HotBoxIt hot sauce, a tamarind barbecue sauce and Asian Box StreetDust, a blend of herbs and spices.

Klein said the company is working on licensing deals that would bring the hot sauces and condiments to retail stores, and they will be available for sale online.

Asian Box also will offer beer and wine. Klein added that the entire menu is gluten free.

The average check will be about $11.95 with non-alcoholic beverages, or $15.25 with beer or wine.

Klein said the design of the restaurants aims for a neighborhood vibe with a thoughtfully curated soundtrack that might include Asian pop music.

“We want to shock people with value, so they’ll say, ‘Wow, what a store! What a price point! What food!’” he said. “But I also want people to say, ‘I’m not slumming it. I’m not stepping down.’”

Asian Box’s first location will encompass about 913-square feet, 70 percent of which will be for the kitchen. The restaurant has 12 seats inside, but more than 40 seats outside.

Klein projects that the first unit will earn $1.2 million to $2 million in sales its first year. About 40 percent of sales will be dine-in, with another 40 percent from take out and about 20 percent in catering, he estimated.

The group chose Palo Alto for its demographics, with Stanford University and its medical center nearby, and a high-income, busy population hungry for take-out options.

But Palo Alto also is a hotbed for tech industry venture capitalists, and Asian Box already has attracted unnamed, deep-pocketed investors whose backing will allow the EatBox brands to grow rapidly, he said.

Klein is an industry veteran who, over the years, has developed and sold concepts like the First Crush wine bar in the late 1990s, and more recently the locovore-focused Fish & Farm and the club Biscuits & Blues, both in San Francisco.

BoxEats plans to open two more Asian Box locations this year. A second American Box unit is scheduled to open in Palo Alto within a couple months, Klein said.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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