Atlanta restaurants: Gusto embraces drive-thrus and healthy fast food – Atlanta Business Chronicle – Atlanta Business Chronicle

During his time as a college and NFL quarterback, Nate Hybl‘s choices for nutritional meals that he could cram into his demanding schedule were limited.
Making a quick trip to a fast-food drive-thru for a basic grilled chicken sandwich or a wilted salad slathered in mass-produced vinaigrette was about as good as it got.
“It wasn’t very good,” Hybl said.
Now, he believes he has a proven model for healthy, flavorful food available on the go.
Gusto, Hybl’s fast-casual chain that has eight locations throughout metro Atlanta, is pivoting to a modernized version of the traditional fast-food business. As the company eyes further expansion, the drive-thru lane will be a staple of Gusto restaurants, Hybl told Atlanta Business Chronicle.
Gusto (which the company stylizes as “gusto!”) will open its next restaurant in downtown Atlanta toward the end of February. This location will be the last Gusto that does not include a drive-thru.
The chain will add four more restaurants — in Athens, Tucker, Buford, and Peachtree City — by the end of this year. In 2023, Gusto’s growth plan calls for five or six more restaurants, including its first outside the state of Georgia. Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Huntsville, Alabama, are possibilities for this location.
The words “fast food” tend to conjure specific images in peoples’ minds: burgers, fries, fried chicken and the like. Any healthier alternatives often have been token items on menus.
When he was developing the Gusto concept a decade ago, Hybl envisioned a healthy fast-food concept. But, he did not think the quick-service dining public was ready to receive that idea. So, he followed the popular fast-casual trend with his first restaurant. Gusto served its menu of salads, bowls and wraps in an airy restaurant with minimalist design touches. Customers had to walk inside and order at the counter. Like most fast-casual restaurants, it was quick, but not as quick as fast food.
Even though Gusto opened its first drive-thru location in Chamblee in 2019 and added a second in East Cobb last year, Hybl still was reticent to carry the fast-food label.
“For 10 years, I’ve intentionally avoided the words ‘fast food,’ even though our product was fast,” he said.
But, the line between fast casual and fast food has blurred amid the pandemic, as diners increasingly have preferred quicker food that can be taken to go. Traditional fast food restaurants are leaning further into the quick-service model with drive-thru only locations. And fast-casual restaurants where customers would typically go inside and order at a counter — such as Chipotle, Shake Shack and Panera Bread — have opened restaurants with drive-thrus.
Seeing other fast-casual brands make this move gave Hybl and his team the confidence to lean into his original vision. Hybl, a Hazlehurst, Georgia, native who played football at the Universities of Oklahoma and Georgia before a professional career that included time with the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars, wants customers to think of Gusto when they’re thinking about fast food.
Because Hybl created the original Gusto menu with a drive-thru in mind, he doesn’t have to recalibrate. Gusto serves bowls with mixed greens, or seasoned brown rice and flatbread wraps filled with proteins such as grilled chicken, tofu or shrimp, and dressed with a variety of sauces and toppings that fit within individual flavor profiles.
Aside from the base and protein, there are limited customization options, which allows for employees to take orders and prepare items with speed. Gusto boasts it can turn around orders in 30 seconds.
Gusto customers may find a new spin on fast food at the chain’s restaurants, but in terms of service, Hybl hopes they have a familiar Atlanta experience. He wants to emulate Chick-fil-A’s hospitality playbook.
“When I think of hospitality in fast food, that was the brilliance of Mr. [S. Truett] Cathy way back when,” Hybl said. “He took the Ritz-Carlton standards and translated them into fast food.”
Though Gusto is steadily growing, Hybl knows his chain is not about to become a direct competitor against billion-dollar fast-food corporations. There will not be a Gusto logo on every interstate exit sign anytime soon.
But, he believes Gusto’s next phase of growth is a step toward a better fast-food industry.
“This has been a passion project,” he said. “It’s been my new life’s mission. People are wanting more flavor and fresher things, healthier things. It’s no longer a trend that folks are occasionally touching on.”
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