ShopHouse, the Southeast Asian concept developed by Chipotle, was quick to put the kibosh on a Seattle restaurant's use of the same name (Wiley Frank and Poncharee Kounpungchart now sell their tofu and noodles under the name "Little Uncle" instead.) But the chain has been notably slow to open a second store.
Speaking at ShopHouse's Washington D.C. location, which this week celebrates its first anniversary, Chipotle's director of concept development Tim Wildin said the company would rather tinker with a single restaurant than prematurely roll out a national expansion plan. Chipotle has 1150 outlets in 38 states, but Wildin claims he doesn't know where and when another ShopHouse might open.
That revelation might disappoint fans of fresh, affordable lunches: Like Chipotle, ShopHouse features a concise menu of vegetable-forward dishes made from painstakingly sourced ingredients. The noodle and rice bowls are offered in just one size, and there currently aren't any desserts or side dishes,. Unlike Chipotle, though, ShopHouse deals in flavors that would be classified as exotic by many American eaters. The mix-and-match menu of proteins, vegetables, sauces and garnishes includes steak laab rubbed with chilis; Thai basil eggplant; spicy red curry and pickled radishes.
"This is pretty funky food to be serving in a quick-service environment," Wildin allows. "It's spicy, it's challenging."
The impetus for ShopHouse was the lousy Thai take-out that Chipotle founder Steve Ells sometimes ordered for lunch. "It always pissed me off," recalls Wildin, who boasts he has fish sauce in his blood.
According to Wildin, Ells may have liked his gummy pad thai, but was keen to prove "our success is not just linked to burritos, but can work with any culture around the world." ShopHouse opened in Dupont Circle last September.
"We all live in New York, but we didn't want to do it in New York, because we wanted to prove something," Wildin says. "If we opened in New York, we could have opened Ethiopian quick service and it would have done well."
When the restaurant opened, it served both bowls and banh mis. But ShopHouse ditched the sandwiches, citing an inability to produce bread in-house and the inefficiencies created by a dual-item menu. The menu's also been revised to clearly indicate which seemingly vegetarian items are flavored with fish sauce, although Wildin concedes staffers are better than the printed menu at limning spice levels. Currently, the mildest vegetable of the four vegetable choices is confusingly called "spicy charred corn."
Further complicating the thorny issue of heat, flooding in Thailand meant there weren't any Thai chiles available when the restaurant first opened. The kitchen ended up substituting Taiwanese chiles, creating very different - and, in some cases, hotter - flavor profiles.
"Honestly, when we opened, we were changing the recipes so much," Wildin says.
Even at Chipotle, Wildin adds, "the food changes more than you know." But he anticipates the pace of change will eventually settle down at ShopHouse.
"I think what would make Chipotle really proud would be to see the same growth pattern and get people away from highly processed food," he says.