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Amid Manhattan’s return-to-office, Inday launches a new way to sell us lunch.
This is the first installment of How Restaurants Work, a column that explores how restaurants are successfully using technology for better business. It’s a perfect read for anyone who wants to know more about what goes on behind the scenes — and why. This column, along with others, goes behind the paywall beginning in October. Why?
Inday Express opened about two weeks ago on West 38th Street and Broadway in Midtown Manhattan. It’s the sort of location that gets a ton of lunchtime foot traffic, at least judging by its restaurant neighbors; it’s next door to a vegetable-forward Dig, across the street from Mediterranean darling Cava, and catty-cornered from salad royalty at Sweetgreen.
Inday launched as a fast casual concept in 2015, at the height of the fast casual (or fine casual if you’re Danny Meyer) boom in New York City. It’s the now-familiar model: guests ordered at the counter, restaurants served food made from quality ingredients for take-out or dine-in; the goal was to serve more customers quickly, an easy proposition in workday Manhattan. On a spectrum of restaurants with speed and service on one end and the experiential concepts on the other, fast casual tried to sit squarely in the middle. But as the saying goes: “A jack of all trades is a master of none.”
Some say the full saying goes: “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” This claim is unproven, but relevant to many restaurants’ recent shifts, including this one.
Inday has five locations, but 38th Street is home to the first Inday Express. It’s built for a to-go crowd, serving a shortened menu and taking orders online, from touch-screen kiosks, or, if you prefer, via friendly humans at the counter. It’s bright and colorful and ready to take on a growing lunch rust from tourists and returning office workers that could make up much of Inday’s daily business.
Much has been said about the supposed return to in-office work, but Basu Ratnam, Inday’s founder, told me he’s stopped waiting for a return to so-called normal. “This is it,” he said.
As of a few weeks ago, office occupancy in New York remained under 50 percent. There’s fewer opportunities to sell people lunch, maybe two or three days per week instead of five. “That means we have to be 20 to 30 percent better,” Ratnam said.
In this case, “better” means honing the entire experience to work in a small space designed to move orders fast. Jon Check, the Inday’s head of culinary and operations, reduced the menu to three curries, a handful of freshly grilled kebabs, and sides like samosas and masala fries. Nearly everything, including curries, is cooked to order, and orders come out of the kitchen — arranged in three independent stations “with no bottlenecks” — in under five minutes. Check bought a custom oven for baking naan, mimicking the effect of a tandoor with a rotating cast iron plate and three different heat sources. It cooks the flatbread in 90 seconds.
Check calls the naan a “hero product,” or a menu item designed to be remembered — and to keep customers coming back for more. After coming out of the oven it’s brushed with ghee and topped with nigella seeds and chopped cilantro. Check said a variation uses garlic confit instead of traditional chopped garlic for “better flavor, less burning, and more moisture.” (I flew home to San Francisco a few hours after tasting it and can confirm it is both memorable and that I would like more.) The food is bolstered by heavy investment in staff development; they meditate together before opening and are guided by an internal training document called “the book of mindful cooking.” When there’s no line, staff are encouraged to step from behind the counter to help customers navigate the ordering kiosks.
It’s less than a month old, but when I visited a week ago, Inday Express was humming; the model is working. Ratnam said about a quarter of the restaurant’s orders are placed online in advance. In-store, there’s a 50/50 split between kiosk and face-to-face ordering.
The pared-down menu and new focus on speed doesn’t make Inday a so-called “master of one.” Inday Express is just right for Midtown, but don’t expect the same experience at all Inday locations. Actually, expect the opposite: a forthcoming opening in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, dubbed Inday All Day, skews experiential, encouraging guests to sit and even linger. A recent Instagram post hints at a drinks menu. Eventually existing Inday locations will become an Express or All Day location, suited to needs of their particular neighborhoods.
Changes and growth remain intentional.
“The go-to is not scale,” Check said. “The go-to is quality.”
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