More than French Fries on a Sandwich: Hello Bistro and big Burrito Group Reflect Evolving Dining Trends
Aug 31, 2015 11:39AM ● Published by Jennifer Monahan
Bill Fuller is corporate chef for the big Burrito Restaurant Group and has been with the organization since its creation in 1995. He explained, “big Burrito started and grew up in Pittsburgh—and right now is an awesome time to be in Pittsburgh. The city has had a resurgence of jobs, technology and spirit.”
big Burrito owns Mad Mex Restaurants throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio, including seven in the Pittsburgh area. The group is also the brains and culinary acumen behind local favorites such as Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen & Wine Bar, Soba and Umi in Shadyside, and Eleven Contemporary Kitchen and Kaya in the Strip District.
Fuller, a native of western Pennsylvania who spent time in Washington, DC, and the San Francisco Bay Area before returning home 20 years ago, has observed significant changes in the local restaurant industry over the last two decades. One trend dear to Fuller’s heart is the demand for–and availability of–local, fresh, seasonal ingredients. After training in California where farmers would deliver fresh produce directly to the restaurants’ doors, Fuller said that when he initially returned to the Pittsburgh area he was happy if he could find a locally produced turnip. “Now we have great access to farmers and high-quality, locally produced food,” he said.
Fuller’s commitment to utilizing local, seasonal ingredients—evidenced across all the big Burrito Group restaurants—is about both taste and community impact. He explained, “A lot of the money I spend on produce goes back into the local economy. Our suppliers also source locally. It makes a difference.”
The demand for quality ingredients is a trend also cited by Becky McArdle, spokesperson for Hello Bistro. “People want to see what goes into their food, and they want it to be fresh,” she noted. Although Hello Bistro has only been on the scene since 2012, it is the creation of the Eat’n Park Hospitality Group.
Eat’n Park, an area icon, started as a single carhop style restaurant in Pittsburgh in 1949. The organization today includes the Eat’n Park chain, the celebrated Porch restaurant in Oakland, Six Penn Kitchen in the Cultural District, Delicious Raw and three Hello Bistro restaurants. “We have been part of the Pittsburgh community for over 65 years,” said McArdle. “We know Pittsburgh, we’re a part of the community, and we love being here.”
A fourth Hello Bistro is opening this month on Providence Boulevard in McCandless Crossing in the North Hills. McArdle is particularly excited about the newest Hello Bistro, which will offer outdoor seating to take advantage of the beautiful scenery. Its popular menu reflects the demand for fresh ingredients as well as other emerging trends.
“We have definitely seen the Pittsburgh food scene evolving, and there has been a lot of change, especially in the last couple of years,” said McArdle. “One major trend is customization. People want to choose their own ingredients.”
Hello Bistro caters to that trend, according to McArdle. “We design signature salads, or you can create your own. We chop it all up for you and you get a little bit of everything in each bite,” she said.
Though the 55-ingredient salad bar is a highlight of Hello Bistro’s menu, McArdle added, “People do want to indulge sometimes, and so of course we also have amazing burgers and delicious, hand-cut fries.”
In addition to fresh ingredients and customized meals, Fuller said that Pittsburgh diners are conscious of what’s going on in the larger restaurant world and want to see menu items that reflect dining trends in other cities. While he used to have to travel to stay on top of what was in vogue, Fuller said that he can increasingly look to his fellow chefs and restauranteurs in Pittsburgh.
“The growth of social media has opened up communication, and has made the food community stronger,” he explained, adding that increasing numbers of customers in the past 10 years, including young professionals who are engaged in the community and want to spend money on quality local dining, has benefitted local chefs.
“There are still not enough great restaurants in Pittsburgh,” Fuller noted. “But Pittsburgh has always been a great place to live, and there is so much growth—we’re really at a different level now. It’s exciting.”
Although paying attention to trends is part of what makes these eateries successful, it’s not everything. Said Fuller, “Well-made, good-tasting food and great service are ultimately what people come back for.”