Dig Inn is a thriving chain of fast-casual restaurants that’s making healthy food accessible like never before. As part of their ‘Spring Into Summer’ promotion, Dig Inn is collaborating with Meatless Monday. “It’s less about a marketing tactic to get people in the door on Monday,” said founder Adam Eskin. “It’s more, we’re in support of anything that furthers the cause. We see it as an opportunity to support an organization and a movement.”
Offering Meatless Monday options is not a big stretch for Dig Inn, since 70% of the food they serve is vegetables. “We cook everything fresh here every day…and it’s crazy the amount of vegetables that we cook,” said Dig Inn chef Matt Weingarten. When it comes to meat he’s most concerned about finding the right source, for the highest quality and lowest environmental impact. But when it comes to cooking and recipes, he says, “I spend more of my time thinking about how I cook our vegetables than how I cook our meat.”
Dig Inn already has eleven locations in Manhattan and by the end of 2016 they hope to be in Boston, Chicago, and L.A. They feature unique sandwiches and hearty protein-filled salads, but the signature offering is called Marketplates. You start with an entrée (salmon, steak, or veggie options like tofu) then you get to add ridiculously good hot sides (like roasted sweet potatoes and upstate mac) and cold sides (spinach w/ mango, asparagus w/radish.) By the time you get to the end of the line you want to double back and try all the things you couldn’t fit this trip through. And you get all this for around $10-12.
“Affordable food for everyone,” said Eskin. “What’s the point otherwise? If we just wanted to do fancy, high-end vegetables, we could probably do well and make money, but what impact would that have? In order to have impact, accessibility has to be on your radar. But it can’t be to the detriment of the quality of food you serve. It’s a balancing act, but what we’ve been able to do with supply and food opps has allowed us to charge a little less than everyone else.”
With no restaurant experience other than being a busboy at age 15, Eskin was asked by the equity firm he worked for to parachute in and save a flagging restaurant investment. He soon saw that what was happening in the grocery channel with Whole Foods was going to happen in the restaurant world as well. “For me the idea became wildly obvious. This type of food, in this type of setting,” he said, referring to his new Madison Park location. “With this amount of speed and accessibility, at this price point, and with this much care and commitment to the food and where it comes from.”
For him it’s about building a nice business and having fun doing it, but it’s also about effecting change. Eskin is troubled by the obesity problem in the U.S., and got positively giddy when a large group of teens sat near us, their plates overflowing with Dig Inn specials. “That’s what gets me excited. When you get’em early, it’s like, ‘You are eating kale for life, kid!’ Imagine what happens when they’re older and feeding their kids. That’s why the opportunity for us, as a business, is so important.”
The restaurant business is notoriously difficult, and when you add to that the extra prep that comes with a predominantly vegetarian menu, the desire to source ingredients locally, and relentless competition, it’s daunting.
“We didn’t pick the easiest path,” says Eskin. “Actually just the opposite. We took the most complicated and challenging path and are trying to make that work. When it does, it’s very rewarding.“
One thing they have in their favor: they’ve built solid relationships with their suppliers over time, to the point where they actually list farms where their food comes from on their menu. Whether it’s helping partners pay for seeds up front or sending them to Cornell to learn about food safety, they continue to invest in relationships and engage with partners at every level that is mutually beneficial.
Another smart practice: recruiting people from outside of the restaurant industry. “We’re getting a ton of amazing talented people who want to join us just because of what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Eskin. “And we’re figuring out how to take their passion, intellect and experience and put it to use inside the four walls of our company.”
Analytics are at the core of their business. You’d expect that from a numbers guy like Eskin, but Chef Weingarten also sees their value. “Analytics are huge for helping us understand our customers’ preferences and what is selling well. I’m kind of a systems guy. I get geeky about how to get things done. And to work within this model and say, ‘hey, we can cook vegetables this fast and this good in this many locations…for me as a craftsman, I love it.” Having come from a fine dining background, he feels fortunate to have learned under masterful chefs and brings that experience to what he does every day at Dig Inn.
Thanks to analytics they could immediately answer what their most popular vegetables are – it’s seasonal, but Brussels sprouts lead over the year, with kale and cauliflower not far behind.
“We just put kale & rhubarb as one of our sides,” said Chef Weingarten.” It’s pickled so it stays firm, crispy, and juicy, both sweet & sour. Folks internally said, ‘I don’t eat rhubarb’ but they tried it and…so far it’s got a 100% conversion rate.” Success for Weingarten is to introduce people to new flavors and new foods. “To put out kohlrabi and have everyone digging on kohlrabi. And that’s just a matter of time. These kids,” he said referring to the teens, “they’re going to be down with kohlrabi.”
Just as Meatless Monday is trending upward, Dig Inn is on a similar trajectory. “We’re leading the change and that’s where we want to be,” said Weingarten. “We all want to have better food that’s more accessible at an affordable cost. And the more the big food systems adjust to that, the better it is for all.”