Hi there. I’m new here, and I have lots of questions. I hope this is the correct forum to ask them in. I’m not a chef, but we have grand plans to open a small restaurant of our own, and I could use some advice from the pro’s now while we are still in the planning stages.
Keeping fast casual food fresh all day?
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I think your method of production sounds reasonable. The biggest holdup would be how long the mac and cheese spends in the oven, and how are you going to get it from the oven to the customer? I assume you can't serve the pasta in the same container it goes through the oven in (I mean, you can't give someone a scalding hot metal container of pasta can you?) so you'll need to find a way to transfer the pasta from the oven container to the "to go" container or whatever. Make sure you think about this step because it is missing from your description. There are containers that can go into the oven, just make sure you factor them into your cost cause the money can add up so maybe this is what you are going to go with.
You'll have to determine your own shelf life for the sauce. You'll need a steam well to hold it hot...and you'll have to figure out how long the sauce can stay in the steam well before it loses consistency. Like, Starbucks only keeps their brewed coffee's around for an hour or two before they brew a fresh pot, so the same idea applies. A cheese sauce should hold pretty well though. There won't be a "standard" rule for something like that...you'll just have to keep tasting for a while as the cheese sauce sits in the well to determine after how long it starts to degrade and lose flavor. You'll need to set up a plan so that your hot food is held at the correct temperature for service and all that stuff--a health inspector is going to want to see that you'll have a plan to get hot food hot, and KEEP it hot, for service (temp logs, etc). Hopefully you'll be going through the food too fast to worry if it will be in the steam table for more than 4 hours.
Is your pasta going to be held hot or cold? It'll last longer cold, so keep that in mind. Holding hot pasta is usually a nightmare cause it either bloats and gets overcooked or dries out.
I think that heating up batches throughout service is the way to go, swapping out the container in the steam well when it needs it.
I like the idea of a "build your own" pasta bowl thing kind of like a Subway or Chipotle where you go down a line and add different ingredients to a pasta dish. I think it could work. The key to freshness is replenishing often and not making too much at a time. Unfortunately there is no data for us to work off of for your restaurant since we have no idea how busy you will be, what sells best, etc. The best thing to do is just after your initial opening, to gather as much data and work out the kinks on the fly.
I imagined we would keep the pasta cold, but the cheese and meats warm.. theory is that the cold pasta would get warmed up just fine with the hot molten cheese sauce + oven ride. Maybe it would be fine if the meats were cold too? Don't have the equipment to test it, but I'm planning to give it a go with my regular home oven this weekend when we test out some more ideas. I want it to be fast though, since everyone is in a hurry, so I think it would mostly be more for melting the cheese on top.
As far as cooking goes, we were thinking of just using round aluminum take out containers to mix in the pasta and run through the oven. For take out, we'll just stick that in a small pizza box. For dine in, we'll transfer it to a deep dish or bowl. Like you said we don't want people to get burned. I know some restaurants serve food on hot dishes and tell you it's hot, but I don't like that idea because someone is always going to get burned no matter how much you warn them.
And yes like you said it would be like a Chipotle or Subway where you build your own or select our pre-made recipes. but we really want to focus on fresh and homemade ingredients. We also plan to offer "upscale" grilled cheeses (but will probably go for something more like paninis), and other fun cheesy items. but the mac & cheese would be the focus.
I was just thinking what might work is if we make a lot of the bechamel sauce in the morning, and then store most of it in the fridge.. then heat it up in smaller batches as needed and add in the cheese and then we're ready to go.