Where are they now?

Restaurantbusiness.com looks back at some of the concepts that figured into past Future 50 rankings of the day’s up-and-comers. Did the pacesetters live up to their future-star promise? Well, yes and no.

Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q (No. 21 in our 2008 ranking): Founded by a father and son, the Southeastern pit-master is far from mom-and-pop today. It’s grown to 27 stores, compared with the 17 in operation when the concept first left a dribble of barbecue sauce on our radar screen. But the big news is the company it’s keeping. Among those new stores are three operated by Ruby Tuesday, which sees the concept as a potential replacement for a number of the casual-dining giant’s namesake restaurants. Ruby recently informed investors that a converted Ruby Tuesday outlet typically doubles its sales as a Jim ‘N Nick’s, and the revamped outlets had yet to add catering at the time of the disclosure.

Organic To Go (No. 7 in 2009): The health-oriented chain had a killer distinction when it hit our Future 50 list. It was the first (and possibly still the only) fast-casual chain to have its product line certified as organic. But its direction has changed radically since then. At the height of the Great Recession, OTG closed about 15 of 33 stores, and it’s not clear how many of the others remain open today (there’s not one listed on its website). The karma lives on in Ogo, described as sustainable catering “powered by Organic to Go.”

Oberweis Dairy (No. 28 in 2009): Please hold for news about this ice cream concept’s concessions to the times…Still looking…Give us a minute…Well, it no longer uses horse-drawn wagons for home delivery, though that adjustment probably came soon after the business’ start in 1915. You’re not going to find a lot of zigs and zags in Oberweis’ course. The concept you’ll find today is not much different from the nostalgic holdout that made our list two years ago. It added delivery of cones and other frozen treats, an extension of its packaged ice cream and milk home-delivery businesses. And you can get a smoothie or an espresso drink as well as a Rocky Road scoop. But it’s sticking to what it’s always been, an operation whose Great Depression values landed it in the Future 50 rankings at the worst of the Great Recession.

Redstone American Grill (No. 15 in 2009): Being named to our Future 50 list was a rare spot of good news for this brainchild of concept creator Dean Vlahos, best known for founding the Champps Americana chain. At the time, Redstone, a progenitor of the sub-segment now known as polished casual, was grabbing headlines because of the scandal surrounding Tom Petters, who owned 15% of the company. Petters was the mastermind of a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi Scheme that’d sucked in Vlahos, who was already snagging local headlines because of a high-profile divorce. Highly publicized executive departures didn’t exactly muffle the hubbub. But Redstone survived what many saw as a near-death experience. It still has just five locations open, or as many as were in business as the time of the Future 50 listing. Current management has promised to get the chain growing again.

Ham’s (No. 28 in 2007): This Southern favorite survived the back end of the Great Depression, but the more recent economic meltdown proved too much. The chain’s parent filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in fall 2009 at age 74. It had 14 stores open at the time, down appreciably from the 26 that were open when it hit our chart. More have closed since the filing, including the concept’s flagship in Greensboro, N.C. But restaurant vet Rocco Scarfone purchased what was left last year—for $360,000—with reassurances to employees and patrons that he’d get the system growing again. The chain’s website lists seven locations, and a new menu.

Buffalo Wild Wings (No ranking): Nope, it wasn’t on any of our Future 50 lists, being too big to fall within our scope for even the first ranking. But it deserves this check-in after all the competition it’s stared down in the various Future 50s. The 2008 list featured four direct challengers, including virtual fraternal twins Buffalo Wings & Rings, WOW Café & Wingery and Hurricane Grill. The tally dropped to three chains the next year, then to two, but we’re on the rise again in 2011 with three concepts. All in all, more than 13 wings concepts have appeared on our lists. So how did that competition affect BWW? It’s not exactly quaking. For its most recent quarter, the franchisor’s profits grew 41% on a 19% increase in revenues and a 3.9% rise in comp sales for company units. 


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