Charleston isn’t as fast-paced as some of the nation’s larger cities, where fast-casual brands, many of which are chains, serve as lunch and dinner options for those on the go.
But Charleston’s appetite for fast food that’s not lacking in quality continues to grow, as do the handful of independent counter-service eateries that have their roots in the holy city.
As this type of service becomes increasingly popular, the line between casual quick service and full service is beginning to blur, and owners of restaurants where customers order at the counter say customer service remains a top priority. .
For local fast food brands with multiple locations, maintaining cohesive operations across all of them is a priority, especially when opportunities for expansion arise.
Focus on salads
Charleston didn’t have many local restaurants that offered fast service and health-conscious cuisine when Jennifer Ferrebee opened Verde with her husband on King Street in 2011.
So the restaurant serving make-your-own salads topped with house dressing and an assortment of over 40 toppings quickly gained traction.
“We had seen fast-casual restaurants in other cities, but at the time, in 2011, Charleston didn’t have what I would call a lot of fast-casual restaurants,” Ferrebee said. “We knew it was a type of restaurant and for us it was really appealing and somewhere we would want to eat.”
When the first Verde opened, the couple thought the concept could work, given its proximity to the College of Charleston. They did not expect to serve South Carolina at five locations 11 years later.
“We really felt like the students would be in on it and it would be something they would like,” she said. “From the first year, it worked and we were delighted.”
After opening two Verdes in Mount Pleasant, one in West Ashley and another in Columbia, Ferrebee grew the company to just under 100 employees. The menu changes seasonally, but some salads have stood the test of time.
“Amazingly, some of our signature salads have been on the menu since day one,” she said. “The basis of what we do hasn’t evolved a ton.”
A recent change has been the addition of canned beer and wine, a service launched by Verde earlier this year. Online orders now account for 40% of Verde’s business, up from 15% before the pandemic.
“The pandemic has certainly changed the number of people ordering online and a lot of people haven’t returned,” Ferrebee said.
As they continue to adapt to the pandemic-induced changes to the business, Ferrebee has its eye on more growth opportunities. She said North Charleston, Summerville and other Columbia neighborhoods could be the next home of a Verde outpost in the near future.
Beyond State Borders
Verde isn’t the only casual dining brand born in Charleston that’s expanding to other parts of South Carolina and beyond. Saveurs du Monde will soon add a fourth French café on Seabrook Island, soon to be followed by Summerville.
Owner Thierry Chateau, who opened the first Saveurs du Monde nearly 10 years ago, said operating a single location was never the end goal. There were initially plans to expand the business which was recently boosted by a partnership with “Mr. Wonderful” (Kevin O’ Leary) of “Shark Tank,” the popular show where investors hear the pitches of business owners seeking funding.
In 2021, Chateau began fundraising with O’Leary’s Startengine, a capital market firm that helps companies and investors find their partner. In June, Saveurs du Monde obtained franchising authorization in the hope of expanding nationally.
The owners of Mediterranean restaurant Kairos, which first opened in Mount Pleasant in 2017, are considering a franchise route after taking their business beyond the state lines of South Carolina. Cary Chastain and Will Oriani own and operate seven Kairos locations: three in the Charleston area, two near Greenville, one in Columbia and one in Tallahassee, Florida.
“The vision was to serve delicious, healthy food and give people an option as affordable as all that,” Oriani said. “As you have growth, it is very tempting to start outsourcing things. It takes a big commitment to make sure you serve fresh food that you prepare every day.
Kairos had been chef-led from the start, when Chastain and Oriani hired current South Carolina Chef Ambassador John Ondo as a consultant after closing his Cannonborough-Elliotborough Lana restaurant in 2017. (Ondo later joined the ownership team but is no longer affiliated with the Company.)
From spreads to pickles and a 17-step falafel, Kairos offers a menu filled with homemade bowls, salads, platters and pitas.
“It’s the core of what I consider to be our strong point moving forward,” Oriani said.
‘Quick Gourmet Meal’
Bon Banh Mi owners Jason Sakran and Jeremy Spencer aren’t big fans of the fast and laid back moniker.
With two locations in the Charleston area and another en route, Bon Banh Mi has many of the features found in fast casual restaurants, including counter service and online ordering.
Although structured to accommodate a large volume, Bon Banh Mi’s menu features homemade ingredients that feature in Southeast Asian-inspired bowls, tacos, salads, and banh mi sandwiches.
This, combined with their staff’s commitment to customer service, sets Bon Banh Mi apart, the owners said.
“The experience we aim to deliver…I call it fast food, which means it’s a higher level of service,” Spencer said. “So being in the same category as somewhere that maybe doesn’t put as much emphasis on those things, maybe that would be my only gripe to define the segment as fast and laid back.”
The food, described as “healthy, vibrant and fresh,” is inspired by recipes Sakran and Spencer would cook for friends and family. They are under no illusions that the restaurants were built to spend a lot of time in Southeast Asia, but that doesn’t mean their food can’t be delicious and something people crave, have they stated.
According to Sakran, the concept was built around the idea of replication, meaning there could be more Bon Banh Mi in the Carolinas and beyond in the future. Owners had plenty of opportunities to expand beyond the Lowcountry in the past, but they went with the basics approach.
Customers often don’t leave a tip after ordering at the Bon Banh Mi counter. Some leave it at that, while others feel inclined to leave money on the table after talking to Bon Banh staff Mi throughout their meal, Spencer said.
An influx of online orders in a post-pandemic world has reduced those opportunities to engage with customers, but this part of the business remains a top priority, especially as the business expands.
Sakran calls it a hybrid model.