With every class of up-and-coming restaurant concepts comes a fresh crop of common threads that tie them together. Some trends carry over, affirming tides in the larger industry. At the same time, new trends come into focus, offering a snapshot of the menus, messaging and business models driving growth in new markets.
1. It pays to adopt an indie vibe
Some 57% of all consumers—and 64% of millennials—say they most often visit local independent restaurants for full-service dining, according to Technomic’s 2017 Generational Consumer Trend Report. Chains are taking notice, showcasing local specialties and unique decor in each location. HopCat (No. 4), for example, bills itself as the “anti-chain chain,” commissioning custom art for each of its brewpubs and cultivating locally influenced beer menus. Moe’s Original Bar B Que (No. 36) franchisees tailor their units to suit the locale—from a tiki hut bar outside its Panama City, Fla., location to the Mobile, Ala., store’s music venue.
2. Build-your-own pizza is growing up
Just four of this year’s Future 50 chains are limited-service pizza concepts, compared to seven last year—including then-fastest-growing chain Pie Five. Some of those had sales that grew to more than $50 million, graduating them out of the class of emerging chains. And as time goes on, only the strong may survive. “We are seeing the proliferation of custom-built pizza, and I would expect to see strong unit growth coming as many of the regional players grow up and grow nationally,” says Technomic’s Darren Tristano. “We will start to see fallout as franchising drives growth and some market maturity drives the weaker players out of business.”
3. Build a local base with beer
4. Bowls, burgers and brunch are big
DIY pizza’s evolution is making room for concepts that capitalize on other popular culinary trends to flourish. Multiple Future 50 chains have bowls as the primary vessel for top-your-own meals built on noodles, salad greens, rice and other grains. And still, burgers remain big business for growth chains, particularly those that take an innovative approach to the classic build. Brunch, too, is big, led by buzzed-about Snooze, an A.M. Eatery (No. 11) and Florida favorite Keke’s Breakfast Cafe (No. 17).
5. Ethnic is on the rise
American palates are becoming more adventurous, and a number of chains are rising up to answer the call. More than a quarter of this year’s Future 50 concepts are built around some international cuisine. There’s the Middle Eastern fare of top-ranking Halal Guys, Japanese noodle bowls and tapas at Jinya Ramen Bar (No. 7), and South Korean sweets such as red bean bingsu (shaved ice) and honey bread on the menu at import bakery-cafe Caffebene (No. 40). Other concepts on the list are stretching the boundaries of what passes as ethnic: Tin Lizzy’s Cantina (No. 32), for instance, counts a Super Greek taco and Thai basil margarita among its “FlexMex” menu.
6. Blended and alternative meats make a mark
Bubba’s 33 (No. 2) differentiates itself within the saturated burger segment with a signature beef blend that’s one-third ground bacon. The Halal Guys (No. 1) and Ike’s Place (No. 6) feature halal meats. Luna Grill (No. 5) recently added a beef-and-lamb-blend gyro. And Burger Lounge (No. 15) appeals to plant-eaters with a handcrafted organic quinoa patty. For others on the list, buzzwords such as “grass-fed,” “hormone-free” and “cage-free” abound when it comes to meat, tapping into the demands of two-thirds of consumers who say they prefer humanely raised meat, according to Technomic’s 2017 Center of the Plate: Beef & Pork Consumer Trend Report.
7. Community-minded matters
Yet another way quickly growing emerging concepts are building local engagement is through community outreach. Piada Italian Street Food (No. 13) is known for teaming up with area charities, while the new app from B.good (No. 22) empowers consumers to donate food to local schools. &Pizza (No. 12) earned notoriety for its founder’s outspoken embrace of a $15 minimum wage for its “tribe” (read: employees). And HopCat (No. 4) claims to recycle or compost 90% of the waste the restaurant generates.
8. Tech fuels guest service
The availability of online ordering is increasingly becoming a traffic driver, with 29% of millennials saying the option increases the likelihood they’ll order, according to Technomic’s 2016 Takeout and Off-Premise Consumer Trend Report. Future 50 operators such as Cowboy Chicken (No. 26) continue to upgrade their mobile ordering options, while Hopdoddy Burger Bar (No. 23) now allows diners to leave real-time reviews via tablet on their dining experiences.
9. Full service shows signs of life
Nearly half of this year’s Future 50 concepts are full-service operations, including three chains in the top 10. Regional full-service brands, like Bubba’s 33 (No. 2), are emerging to capitalize on their location-specific hospitality and service. In the case of III Forks steakhouse (No. 38), for example, that now includes delivery.
10. Asian brands cross over
Asian concepts and limited-service Asian-noodle chains led all other menu categories in year-over-year sales and unit growth among Technomic’s Top 500 chains. It’s a trend well-represented among the Future 50 too, with several imports taking root here and growing. Making this year’s roundup of growth chains are Jinya Ramen Bar (No. 7) from Tokyo, 85C Bakery Cafe (No. 18) from Taiwan, Kula Revolving Sushi Bar (No. 25) from Japan, and Caffebene (No. 40) from South Korea. These concepts often bring new applications of technology, menu items and service to the landscape.