The New Fast Casual: Eric Lilavois Talks Little Gem

The New Fast Casual: Eric Lilavois Talks Little Gem

Little Gem isn’t your average counter-service concept. The farm-driven restaurant, which opened in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley in December, serves dishes free of many common allergens and made with carefully-sourced seasonal produce. The space is bright and open, filled with locally crafted furniture and reclaimed wood.

And finally, the team. Little Gem was founded by three fine-dining alums: John DiFazio, Chef Dave Cruz, and Eric Lilavois, formerly COO for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group.

What attracts those who have worked at some of the top-ranked restaurants in the world to the casual space? To find out, we asked Eric all about the story behind Little Gem, how fast-casual is being reinvented, and why it’s taking off across the country. Here’s what we learned.

“Fast casual” is too broad.

With the introduction of concepts such as Little Gem and sweetgreen, there’s a distinction to be made between fast casual and “fine casual,” “smart casual,” or “quick quality” — whatever the preferred terminology may be. Eric isn’t sold on any of the phrases just yet, but he is a big believer in the idea behind them. That’s what led him to create Little Gem.

“I always thought ‘fast casual’ was too broad; I never really understood what it meant because too many restaurants fit into the fast-casual realm,” he says. “What we are intent on doing — and whatever this term is or what it becomes — is still elevating that experience of what it means to dine at a counter-service restaurant.”

People want good, high-quality food — period.

After a decade working with Chef Thomas Keller, Eric says he noticed a shift in the evolution of America’s food culture. “The younger generation today understands so much more about food, is so much more sophisticated, than the prior generation. Their expectations are much higher and greater, and they demand more — as they should.”

Additionally, while fine-dining restaurants are alive and thriving, he noticed a growing interest in high-quality food served in a more relaxed environment. We don’t always want to spend an hour and a half over dinner, but we do want to enjoy great food.

I became convinced that if we could parlay all the principles and practices that made us successful at the highest level into a much more relaxed environment — if we could use all of our experience and knowledge of purveyors and farmers and artisans — we might be able to just elevate that experience and expectation. I’m someone who thrives on challenge, and that was a pretty great challenge.”

The New Fast Casual: Eric Lilavois Talks Little Gem

Public perception of restaurant pricing has to change.

The restaurant business is changing, whether you’re running a fine-dining concept or a fast-casual one. Eric sees the much-discussed labor challenge in two ways: first, there’s the cost of labor, and second, the issue of sourcing labor. When it comes to cost, he’s adamant that restaurant employees are professionals who deserve to be paid fairly — however, the pricing structure has to change accordingly. Diners have to adjust their expectations, particularly for casual restaurants like Little Gem.

“The public perception of higher prices in a restaurant like this doesn’t always connect with people,” he says. “There are a great many who understand, but some people come into a fast-casual restaurant and expect enormous portions and cheap prices. They forget that one can’t sustain a business that way.”

Training is as powerful as experience.

Finding talented staff is another challenge, and Eric has adopted a hiring strategy that focuses on personality rather than work experience. So far, the results have been positive: he says he’s built an exceptional team.

“I can train you to do what you need to do in this environment,” he says. “I’m going to hire based on character and potential.”

Hospitality still applies.

Even in a shorter time frame, without formal service, there are plenty of ways to deliver a great experience and delight guests. Eric trains the staff at Little Gem to “get to yes.” Even though guests are ordering at the counter, they may still ask staff passing by for another glass of wine, and Eric encourages them to make it happen — even if it means a few extra steps.

Similarly, water is self-service, and guests can bring glasses and a carafe to their tables. Some guests may not realize that and run out of water quickly. Eric teaches his staff to bring over a carafe before the guests have to ask for one.

“How do we parlay the principles and practices of service at the highest level to this?” he asks. “It’s just about shifting the way that we think. We can still have open eyes in this environment and be aware and attentive, and still give guests an experience that they may not have expected. We can fulfill their needs without them even asking.”

Photo Credit: Kimberley Hasselbrink