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Long Island fast-casual restaurants from Lucharitos to Island Empanada are booming during pandemic

Kids meals at Hot Chicken Mama in Blue

Kids meals at Hot Chicken Mama in Blue Point include a toy. Credit: Doug Young

I’ll wager a bet: Somewhere in your car, either in the center console or under the seat, there's an object you've cleared away and replaced over and over again in the last few months, a sort of constant talisman of life during a pandemic.

That object is a crumpled wrapper or paper bag, one that once cradled an empanada, a fried-chicken sandwich, possibly a shrimp taco. And if it’s not the wrapper itself, it’s the tiny packet of disposable utensils that came with your order, which you now have way too many of.

Whether or not it's true that the fast-casual boom is sounding a death knell for sit-down dining, it could very well be these quick and comforting bites — such as the Nashville hot-chicken sandwiches that caused a ruckus when Hot Chicken Mama opened recently in Blue Point — that help pull the industry out of the COVID foxhole.

Comfort food "is what’s keeping people sane," said Scott Rosenberg, who operates over a dozen fast-casual spots across Long Island, including two Island Empanadas, seven Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices and four Toxic Wings).

Rosenberg’s Island Empanadas — a franchise spun from the original Ronkonkoma location founded by Roy and Kathy Pelaez in 2011 — both opened during 2020, one in Deer Park just before COVID hit and the other, in Commack, in August. In the beginning of COVID, business went down. "It was rough. You have to do what you do as good or better than everyone else," he said. "People cared more about going to the supermarket and keeping everything at home. Then in the summer, in June and July, they got cabin fever."

The Ralph’s locations did particularly well in 2020, he said; Toxic Wings, which Rosenberg created and owns outright, also stood its ground (its menu combines wings with cheesesteaks, sliders, burgers, hot dogs and salads for a sort of comfort food jamboree). In a deft move, Rosenberg co-housed Toxic Wings with Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices, Nathan’s and Island Empanadas in the Commack location, so that diners could order from all four at once.

But he seems starkly aware that even a deal such as $7.49 for two empanadas and a drink, offered at lunchtime, may be an out-of-reach indulgence for people struggling in the wake of layoffs. "We’re hoping to grow, but $600 doesn’t do much for anybody on Long Island," he said, referring to the recent round of federal stimulus payments. "If people are out of work and hurting, they’re not going to be able to spend the money. Going out for food is a perk."

The U.S. restaurant industry alone laid off 5.5 million employees by the end of June 2020, according to the National Restaurant Association. The summer-to-fall recovery was sharp, however, especially for the fast-food and fast-casual sector, projected to grow by 7.3% overall in 2020 compared with a 37.7 decline for full-service restaurants and 54% for bars, according to the research firm Technomic.

Yet while only four in 10 U.S. diners had eaten inside a restaurant by the end of the summer, 72% had purchased drive-through food and 62% had purchased takeout; while the full scope of 2020 is coming into focus, chains such as Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A had robust double-digit growth in the latter half of last year.

Among those that grew is Qdoba Mexican Eats, which has 740 franchises across the U.S., including three on Long Island. "Last year’s growth far exceeded our expectations, both in New York and across the country," said Tim Welsh, Qdoba’s chief development officer. While he declined to give sales numbers, Welsh said the company pivoted like everyone else in 2020, developing smaller layouts and adding drive-though and curbside service. Franchisee interest remains strong, he said — a Qdoba costs about $30,000 to open — and the company is on track for 50 new locations in 2021, including a few in the metropolitan area.

Asked how he sees consumer habits shifting, Welsh said he’s noticed diners gravitating toward "quality ingredients and dishes, a heightened dining experience — all at a faster pace. The global pandemic has only accelerated that trend at warp speed."

Indeed, demand for Mexican and Tex-Mex is only predicted to grow in 2021, according to market research firms and operators alike. The Garden City-based chainlet Guac Shop opened two new locations in 2020, one each in Jericho and Seaford; and Lucharitos, founded in Greenport eight years ago by Marc LaMaina, is expanding, too, at a rapid pace.

In 2020, LaMaina opened another Lucharitos, this one on a Center Moriches farm — it’s closed for the season — and is planning the westernmost Lucharitos for Melville, to open later in 2021. "Overall, we are sticking with what we are good at, which is chef-led fast casual. Which I don’t think many do," said LaMaina, referring to the smoked-duck tacos and cheeseburger burritos that have an almost cult following.

LaMaina said the last year has been "up and down"; to cope with the changes, the team poured energy into its takeout and delivery operations, launching "little burgers" and "lil chicken boxes" from the Aquebogue location, called Little Lucharitos. "We marketed our to-go drinks really well and it worked," Lamaina added.

His next goal: At least 10 more Lucharitos over the next five years, and beyond Long Island.

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