Even now, more than a decade removed from his Merrill Lynch days, it isn’t difficult to detect the lingering traces of Wall Street in Adam Eskin.
From the slicked-back hair to the propensity for certain personal stylings (trendy tortoise-shell glasses, garment-dyed T-shirts), the Norwell-raised, Ivy League-educated 35-year-old has maintained some of the boardroom swagger — even as his focus has shifted to the kitchen.
Call him the Salad Bro, an investment banker-turned-restaurateur whose latest venture — the fast-casual Dig Inn, which specializes in grain and salad bowls — is quickly gaining momentum.
Since opening its first location in 2011, the New York-based chain has grown to include 12 restaurants, with three more scheduled to open there before the end of the year. This summer, the first Boston location opened, at 557 Boylston St. It won’t be the last: By spring of next year, the company plans to have two more restaurants in the city — they’ve signed leases at the Prudential Center and at 277 Washington in Downtown Crossing — with a goal of five or six in Massachusetts by the end of 2017.
Dig Inn joins a growing roster of restaurant concepts that, as San Francisco Chronicle staff writer and author of the upcoming book “Hippie Food” Jonathan Kauffman puts it, are “taking the farm-to-table movement and trying to make it accessible.”
As a variety of factors have reshaped Americans’ relationship with food — the rise of the Food Network, a mindfulness about where our food comes from, the urge to share everything we eat on Instagram — a new kind of food consumer has emerged.
Oftentimes, they value convenience, but also healthfulness, reasonable pricing, and an appreciation for aesthetic.
Today’s customer “doesn’t want to eat just to fuel their bodies, they want to have the experience of food, and then share that experience,” says Sarah Lockyer, editor in chief of Nation’s Restaurant News. “This notion that everything is shareable to the millennial . . . creates a situation where what you eat becomes part of your identity.”
And that’s where Dig Inn and its trendy, quick, and health-conscious contemporaries have sought to capitalize, often with considerable success.
Sweetgreen, a similar fast-casual concept specializing in salads, has grown to feature more than 50 locations nationally, including nine in Massachusetts. Elsewhere, New York-based The Little Beet and California’s Tender Greens have also seen success catering to the health-conscious, urban consumer.
Dig Inn, for its part, is a full-service, chef-run kitchen that operates counter-style. Each dish is made from scratch, using regionally sourced, seasonal ingredients (the company currently has partnerships with more than 40 farms, including roughly a dozen in Massachusetts) at costs that hover around $8-$13 for lunch. Patrons can customize their bowls, choosing from ingredients ranging from winter squash with black lentils to cauliflower with tahini and dates. The restaurant also serves coffee, beer, and wine, and the Boylston Street location, unlike its New York counterparts, serves breakfast.
That Eskin finds himself at the helm of a restaurant at all is something of a curiosity.
A graduate of Boston College High School, he went on to study business economics at Brown University. After college, he took a job in investment banking at Merrill Lynch and, later, moved to a Connecticut-based company called Wexford Capital.
But at 26, looking for a new adventure — and figuring he’d return to finance after a year spent learning another side of business — he jumped at an opportunity to take over a small chain of New York-based restaurants called The Pump, which catered to the bodybuilding community.
Young, confident, and unaccustomed to failure, he quickly learned that the restaurant business was considerably different than anything else he’d done.
The workload wasn’t the problem; at Merrill Lynch, he’d occasionally work 100-hour weeks.
What he discovered, rather, was that the approach often found in the financial realm — a focus on numbers more than people — didn’t translate well to the restaurant world.
“When you come from the investment business and that environment, what they don’t necessarily teach you [are] things like empathy, and the humanity of a professional environment,” Eskin says. “It was more Excel modeling and numbers and working until 2 in the morning and just doing whatever it took.”
“It took us less than a year,” he adds, “to figure out that it wasn’t going to work.”
Forced to go back to the drawing board, he and a small collection of partners set out to develop a new concept, and, over the course of the next few years, arrived at the idea for Dig Inn. (In addition to viewing it as a viable business concept, Eskin also happens to eat the kind of food Dig Inn serves.)
When the business looked to expand into its first market outside of New York, Boston was a natural choice for Eskin — in addition to being home, the market offers a substantial population of young professionals and college students.
So far, so good. As Eskin spoke recently inside the Boylston Street restaurant — bright and airy, with an outdoor patio — the lunch crowd stretched out the door and down the sidewalk, a collection of customers ranging from 20-somethings to middle-age business types.
And while there’s still the occasional flash of the former financier — he spent part of the conversation scrolling through what appeared to be talking points on his cellphone — Eskin seems to have adjusted to restaurant life.
“I can’t tell you the last time I ever looked at the clock and said, ‘Gee, I wish the day was over,’ ” he says. “It’s more like, ‘I can’t believe I’m out of time.’ ”