Urban Plates to add 25 new locations, bringing fine dining vibes to fast-casual chain

Urban Plates exterior in McLean, Va., which opened earlier this year.
(Courtesy/Urban Plates)

Urban Plates, a local restaurant chain that touts high quality foods in a fast-casual setting, is tripling its footprint with 25 new locations, the company said Thursday.

The Cardiff-based chain said it has received $38 million in new funding to fuel the expansion, with plans to open restaurants throughout the West, Northeast, and possibly the Midwest. Since its first restaurant opened in 2011, the company has already expanded to include 13 locations in California and two in the Washington D.C., area.

The Urban Plates brand has been excessively popular in coastal cities and is known for its long lines during peak business hours. The company has made a point to advertise high standards for ingredients, stocking items like grass-fed beef, line-caught seafood and cage-free chicken. The restaurant locations are designed to play up its healthy food, stocking brightly colored fruits and veggies from floor to ceiling.

It’s a brand that resonates with health-conscious consumers, especially those on the West Coast, said marketing expert Morgan Poor, an assistant professor at San Diego State University. Urban Plates is a Chipotle-style buffet in which customers can build custom plates by selecting ingredients from behind the glass.

“(Urban Plates) is not only showing their customers their high quality ingredients with pictures and imagery, but also showing the actual ingredients from behind the glass,” Poor said. That’s powerful in the marketing world, she said.

Co-founder Saad Nadhir said this style of service is in demand, especially for health or allergy conscious consumers.

“Our service system puts the guest in control,” Nadhir said. “If you have a nut allergy, for example, it allows you to be more confident that your salad is prepared the way you need it because you’re watching it be prepared.”

Nadhir said the quality component is only one contributor to his brand’s popularity. Hospitality, he said, is another major force. The company hired Nicholas George, the former maître d’ of New York City’s famous fine dining establishment Per Se, a Chef Thomas Keller restaurant. At Urban Plates, George is directing all hospitality training, bringing in fine dining rituals to a fast-casual chain. For example, Nadhir said Urban Plates employs greeters to teach customers how to order, offering a handheld experience for newcomers from start to finish.

Although the Urban Plates concept was born on the West Coast, Nadhir thinks there’s an unmet need for this kind of restaurant in the Midwest and other parts of the country. Nadhir is originally from Chicago, and said he thinks that market, for example, is ready for more health-conscious brands.

“All the forces that support our business are present in a big way in every major market in the country,” Nadhir said. “Lifestyle requirements really aren’t that different in Chicago, for example, than Los Angeles and San Diego. And quite frankly, there’s less competition outside California.”

The company plans to add those 25 new locations over the next three years, Nadhir said, expanding existing markets as well as new ones.

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