The newest hot trend in modern dining, the "fast casual" concept, is less about novelty and more about saving cash. It's a disturbing trend, because customer service is rendered irrelevant. These shiny new self-service restaurants are alluringly inexpensive, but patrons are treated more or less like cattle in the stockyard -- move 'em on, head 'em up, move 'em out. That's what dining in Chipotle or Moe's Southwest Grill or the dreary Einstein Bros. Bagels feels like to me.
Cost-conscious dining always has a renaissance when the national economy goes wobbly. And given the state of the economy over the past few years, it's no surprise that low-budget dining is big business. One of the fastest-growing culinary concepts is the Colorado-based Noodles & Company (which recently hired a Chipotle executive as its new CFO).
Local franchiser David Merola opened the metro area's first Noodles & Company in May, but not in the location that would seem most ideal for a cheap, stylish noodle joint. Merola had initially planned to open his first restaurant in Westport, but instead he chose the southern suburb that's become a potent magnet for corporate chains: Olathe.
I've been there twice now, and I question Merola's sanity in choosing this oddball locale. It's in the corner of a strip shopping center "pad site" that's not particularly easy to find. And I'm not convinced that the natives really get the concept, which is vaguely similar to the ill-fated Semolina International Pasta Restaurant. Does anyone remember that Louisiana-based noodle joint? It was a full-service operation that served pasta dishes -- supposedly "from around the world" -- and didn't last two years in Overland Park.
On one of my visits to Noodles & Company, I looked out the window and watched a well-dressed 30-ish couple climb out of their shiny SUV, walk in and stare up at the giant menu hanging above the front counter. They looked confused, which is completely understandable -- the menu is difficult to read, and the counter looks like something from a small-town convenience store, jumbled up with a basket of plastic-wrapped cookies, a couple of wine bottles and a refrigerator loaded with bottled juices and water.
After pondering all of their options, the couple whispered to each other, then turned around and dashed back to their SUV. Could they have been culinary snobs? I suspect so, but the funny thing is that, in the fast-casual category, Noodles & Company is practically hoity-toity. The napkins might be paper, but the food is served on heavy white china, and the flatware is metal. There's even a modest selection of wine, served in little jelly jars. (A glass is more expensive than most of the dinners.)
Some of my friends, perhaps nostalgic for their college days, adore Noodles & Company. "It was cheap. It was fresh," says Jennifer, who frequently ate at the venue near her campus in Colorado. "I wish they would open one downtown."
That would make sense. Noodles & Company may feel wildly out of place in Olathe, but it's an obvious match for an urban demographic. In fact, there's a lot to like about this ten-year-old restaurant chain. The food is prepared quickly, the prices are incredibly inexpensive, and the menu is imaginative but hardly as complicated as its "international" posturing would suggest. Many of the dishes share a lot of basic ingredients -- carrots, red peppers, onions, chopped cabbage and mushrooms -- and the truly exotic entrées, such as "Bangkok curry" or pad Thai, are pale facsimiles of the same dishes served at local Thai restaurants.