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The Fast-Casualization of Chicago: 10 Places to Experience the Boom

Chicago is a battleground for the booming fast-casual restaurant sector.

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Taco Bell Cantina
Taco Bell Cantina
Marc Much

Blink your eyes and another fast-casual restaurant concept is opening its doors in Chicago or expanding to more locations. One of the fastest growing segments in the restaurant industry today according to a recent report by Franchise Help, it's no surprise that these quick, convenient and customizable restaurants are invading Chicago.

Many national brands are putting a stake in the ground in the Loop to capitalize on the heavy lunch traffic from Chicago's working professionals. Utah-based Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill opened a compact version of their saucy Mexican model at 213 W. Lake Street in July. Costa Vida's marketing manager, Chris Cooks, confirmed they have plans to expand to as many as 15 locations throughout the city in the near future, while Atlanta-based 16-unit "fast-fine" concept, Fresh To Order, is currently scouting locations in the Loop for openings in 2016.

According to a representative from Southern California-based Blaze Pizza (8 Chicago locations), their highest grossing store is the South Clinton Street location in Chicago's West Loop. Native Foods Cafe (five Chicago locations), recently changed their South Clinton location to an "express version" to accommodate the 9-5 lunch crowd with even faster service. Even successful finer-dining chefs, such as Mike Sheerin and his forthcoming Hyde Park dumpling spot Packed, have taken notice of this business model.

But are out-of-town fast-casual restaurants negatively impacting local, independent, multi-unit restaurants? According to a recent interview with Marc Malnati, president and owner of family-run Lou Malnati's, they are not. Malnati, who recently opened his own fast-casual restaurant Buzz Bait Taqueria, says his pizzerias cater to a different crowd.

Should you expect to see more local chefs opening fast-casual spinoffs or will the bubble burst? Here are 10 notable fast-casual concepts that opened or plan to open in Chicago this year, and stay tuned to see how many more pop up.

Shake Shack test kitchen Marc Much/Eater Chicago

Shake Shack River North [Photo: Marc Much]

Shake Shack: Despite originally wanting to put ketchup on their Chicago-style hot dog, Chicago has welcomed New York City's worldwide burger phenomenon with open arms (and wallets). Two locations have opened downtown plus one in Skokie. Just how long will the Shack Attack continue?

Halal Guys Chicago Marc Much/Eater Chicago

Halal Guys Chicago [Photo: Marc Much]

The Halal Guys: With a Gold Coast location open and four more planned, Chicagoans are sinking their teeth into the acclaimed New York City street cart-based halal gyros and chicken.

Snap Kitchen Old Town Chicago

Snap Kitchen Old Town [Photo: Snap Kitchen]

Snap Kitchen: The Austin-based healthy grab-and-go concept opened four locations in Chicago and one in Naperville this summer. The chain has plans to further expand their Midwestern footprint with another site in the West Loop this year plus one in suburban Park Ridge in the coming weeks, according to CEO Martin Berson.

Taco Bell Cantina [Photo: Marc Much] Marc Much

Taco Bell Cantina [Photo: Marc Much]

Taco Bell Cantina: Is it a coincidence that Taco Bell picked Chicago for its first boozy (and fast-casual) location? Receiving loads of national press, Wicker Park is home to the first ever Taco Bell Cantina, with boozy frozen "twisted freezes," draft beer, wine, sangria, an upscale buildout with an open kitchen, and shared plates.

Good Stuff Eatery Chicago Loop

Good Stuff Eatery The Loop [Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

Good Stuff Eatery: "Top Chef" contestant Spike Mendelsohn's take on handcrafted burgers, shakes and other greasy fare is hoping to satiate herds of Chicagoan's meaty appetites with their first location that opened this January and a second opening soon in Lincoln Park.

800 Degrees Westwood

800 Degrees Westwood, CA [Photo: 800 Degrees]

800 Degrees: California-based wood-fired Neapolitan pizza concept is bringing a slice of Naples (via California-based Umami Burger ownership) to Chicagoland with plans to open their 10th location in downtown Evanston on October 9. Create your own pie and watch it cook in just one minute.

Luke's Lobster Chicago

Luke's Lobster Chicago [Photo: Marc Much]

Luke's Lobster: Originating in Manhattan, Luke's opened its doors in the Windy City this spring and reels guests in with their minimalistic Maine lobster, shrimp and crab rolls, seafood platters, chowders, soup and sides.

Glaze Teriyaki Grill Chicago

Glaze Teriyaki Grill Chicago [Photo: Marc Much]

Glaze Teriyaki Grill: Another New York-based fast-casual concept planted roots in the Midwest this year in Lakeview. It offers customizable meat, fish and vegetarian "Seattle-style" teriyaki plates and Asian fusion sides.  Glaze is BYO and has four other locations in New York and San Francisco, plans to open soon in Madison, Wisconsin, but ironically not in Seattle.

Pie Five Pizza Naperville

Pie Five Pizza Naperville [Photo: Facebook]

Pie Five Pizza: Dallas-based Rave Restaurant's fast-casual spin on pizza is one of the many quick-fired pizzerias to make its way to Chicagoland, the first opening this spring and now up to seven suburban locations with 10 more in the works. Quick, customized pizza pie on the run.

BIG & little's Wicker Park

BIG & little's Wicker Park [Photo: BIG & little's]

BIG and little's: Chicago original featuring tacos of the land and sea, burgers, sandwiches and salads. Three city locations are here—each with slightly different menus and colorful artwork—and ownership is hoping to open many more.   

Good Stuff Eatery

22 S Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60603

Snap Kitchen

1226 N Wells, Chicago, IL 60610

Packed

321 E. 57th St, Chicago, IL 60637 (312) 219-6544 Visit Website

Blaze Pizza

4999 Old Orchard Ctr, Skokie, IL 60077 (847) 568-1649

Glaze Teriyaki Grill

3112 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60657 (773) 697-3580

Luke's Lobster

134 N La Salle St, Chicago, IL 60602 (312) 982-2977 Visit Website

Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill

218 W Lake St, Chicago, IL 60606 (312) 374-3344 Visit Website

Buzz Bait Taqueria

1529 N Wells St, Chicago, IL 60610 (312) 664-2899

The Halal Guys Chicago

49 W Division St, Chicago, IL 60610

Shake Shack

332 North Garden, , MN 55425 (952) 466-6056 Visit Website

BIG & little's

860 N Orleans Street, Chicago, IL 312 943 0000

Native Foods Café

14 S Clinton St, Chicago, IL 60661 (312) 382-8600 Visit Website

Taco Bell Cantina

321 1st Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10003 (332) 333-0642 Visit Website

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