Operators big and small can learn lessons from traits these chains on the rise share. Here’s how they are helping set the pace of the industry, by way of menu, operations and more.
1. Thinking bigger
For many operators on this year’s list, building out meant building up: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (No. 37), The Brass Tap (No. 5) and Pinstripes (No. 46, pictured) all opened expansive, two-story units in the last year. Salata (No. 32) opened a location 500 square feet larger than its average store, adding space for new franchisees and managers to get hands-on training.
2. Pay as a point of differentiation
Several Future 50 chains boast not only quality ingredients, but of being top-notch places to work. Modern Market (No. 2) describes itself as an employer that contributes to its staffs’ quality of life. In addition to what it calls a real living wage (“Our average is over $10 and climbing,” the chain states on its website), it offers benefits for full-time employees and free meals. Panini Cafe (No. 34), too, uses its website to talk about its policy of promoting from within and its career support. Tupelo Honey Café (No. 41) detailed a plan this May to increase starting pay and add benefits that include paid time off and health care for full-time staffers, plus other perks. It is investing an additional $500,000 in pay and benefits for existing employees in 2016.
3. Crafting the bar
Spin Neapolitan Pizza (No. 3) teams up with local craft brewers to create its list of beer selections, and The Brass Tap offers 80 different craft beers. Other Future 50 chains are embracing the popularity of brown liquor with craft selections of whiskey and bourbon. On its drinks menu, for example, B (No. 28) lists “really good bottled craft beer,” along with a large selection of single-barrel and small-batch bourbon choices.
4. Regionalization for success
“When chains expand beyond the markets in which they grew their roots, there are often subtle flavor preference differences that require attention in order to target locally. Just as we have regional barbecue flavors and textures, creating a local item not only provides great opportunity for success, it shows the local community that they matter and they have something unique for that market. The same trend is true with beverages and adult beverages. Showcasing a local brewery or wine can provide an emotional connection to the brand through a local favorite.”
—Darren Tristano, president, Technomic
5. The new healthy: Ingredient attention
Diners’ desire to know everything about what they eat has broadened the definition of healthy from low-calorie to include fresh and local, and operators are obliging. Boiling Point (No. 23), for example, promotes its locally grown ingredients across the menu, and Lemonade (No. 26) is all about serving fresh, seasonal products that may differ by location, based on what’s available and grown nearby.
6. Little chains with a big impact
More than a dozen Future 50 chains ended 2015 with 10 or fewer units, and all of them are casual-dining concepts. One potential factor for these smaller chains bringing in big dollars: a sizable adult beverage program that boosts check averages, thus AUVs.
7. Established brands put bucks behind growers
Multiple Future 50 chains come from big-time parent companies, the most well-known connection being Chipotle’s ownership of Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen (No. 8). Industry veteran Cameron Mitchell and his team are behind Rusty Bucket (No. 38), and BR Guest Hospitality, which runs more than a dozen concepts in New York City and beyond, owns and operates Mexican concept Dos Caminos (No. 47). The top chain in this year’s ranking, Pie Five, is the growth workhorse of legacy brand Pizza Inn. And while it’s not the majority owner, Panda Express acquired a third of Just Salad (No. 13) and is advising on its expansion.
8. Sports bars… but more
Traditional sports bars still are bringing in traffic, but to avoid the veto vote, several emerging casual-dining spots are playing the field. While fancy TVs are a part of the sell, these chains promote themselves as more than just a place to watch the game. The Brass Tap, for example, is breaking out, selling itself not only for its high-definition screens, but also for being part craft brewhouse, part live-music venue.
9. Engagement, called out
The number of Future 50 chains defining themselves not only by the food, but by the in-restaurant experience, is growing. Pinstripes calls itself a dining and entertainment venue. The first word under the About Us section of the Eureka (No. 16) website is “Eatertainment”—fully embracing the action-packed term that’s bubbling up in the industry.