Restaurant Review: Vessel Kitchen's New Groove | Restaurant Reviews | Salt Lake City Weekly

Restaurant Review: Vessel Kitchen's New Groove 

A local fast-casual spot turns old favorites into new favorites.

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  • Alex Springer

The fast-casual world was a bit of a one-trick pony back in 2016 when Brian Reeder, Roe'e Levy and Nick Gradinger opened the first location of Vessel Kitchen. Sure, we all enjoyed spots that filled that slightly classed-up the fast food model, but all those rice bowls and burritos left a bit too much to the imagination. So, when this local trio of restaurateurs opened Vessel Kitchen with its well-rounded menu that knew what to do with the food pyramid, it was a humongous hit.

In the eight years since Vessel first opened its doors, it's expanded to seven locations throughout the Wasatch Front, with an eighth scheduled to open in American Fork later this summer. Its takeout menu and wide range of plant-based options helped keep it afloat throughout the 2020 pandemic, but it's recently undergone a significant facelift. I was able to chat with co-founder Brian Reeder at the Ninth and Ninth location of Vessel to discuss the logistics of how a brand with seven different locations can change up the menu while keeping its fanbase happy. (Spoiler alert: It's pretty damned tricky.)

This recent shuffle isn't the first time Vessel has changed things up. In fact, it used to happen much more frequently before 2020. "Menu changes were always a part of our first few years in business," Reeder says. "It's always hard, because you want people to get excited about something new, but some of them have wild amounts of passion and rage if you remove their favorite thing from the menu."

Though I'm the type of diner who loves getting the new cool thing, I can definitely sympathize with the customer who, as Reeder puts it, "broke down and started sobbing because the roasted Brussels sprouts were off the menu." We just assume that our favorite dish will always be there to be an anchor in a world swirling with chaos, so it's a shock when that little bit of consistency suddenly disappears. And, to whomever this customer was: The roasted Brussels sprouts are back on the menu, and it's going to be okay.

My take on the new menu was mostly positive. For example, the new signature bowl known as the Uncle Rico ($15)—yes, it's named after that Uncle Rico, you Napoleon Dynamite nerds—is a stark improvement over the Good and Plenty bowl that served as its foundation. It keeps the creamy mashed potatoes, but adds a bright chile verde to the pulled pork, then tops it off with Vessel's new macha corn, guajillo crema and some cotija cheese. I was a longtime fan of the Good and Plenty before, but like most of the changes on Vessel's new menu, this one is better than the original.

The new menu features a more prominent Latin influence, which is thanks to Vessel's new culinary director, Andrew Shrader. "He has such a varied background," Reeder says. "It's like Southern California-meets-Mexico with some Asian influence, and we really wanted him to own the menu and put his stamp on it."

Shrader has plenty of experience with innovative fast-casual concepts; before joining the Vessel team, he was the regional chef for Southern California's Crack Shack. "He fits in really well with the team," Reeder says. "We all take what we do seriously, but we also try to have a good time and not take ourselves too seriously. Andrew really fits in with all of that."

After getting a taste of Vessel's updated menu, our conversation eventually turns to logistics. One of the reasons Vessel Kitchen is so popular is because it's carved out a very specific fast-casual niche for itself. Replicating these specific flavors and dishes across seven different locations is no easy task, which is why Vessel's core culinary team occupies a central commissary, where they can prep and ship specific dishes to each location as needed.

In the five years since Vessel has changed up its menu, the brand has grown considerably. "We always wanted to grow, but ... without sacrificing quality and consistency," Reeder says. "We use a hub and spoke model—if it can be made better at the store, we're making it there. But if it can be made more consistently at our central kitchen, we're going to do it there."

As Vessel Kitchen continues to evolve to meet the needs of modern diners while remaining true to the roots that its founders have established, Reeder and his co-founders remain enthusiastic. This passion for making food that tastes great while providing a bit more balance than fast-casual diners are used to has had a pronounced influence on the local options that we have today. Thanks to Vessel's influence, our local dining scene has grown to include several options for fast-casual dining on the healthier side of the spectrum.

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