The last time a Top 100 Independents ranking was published (in Restaurants & Institutions magazine five years ago), Tavern on the Green sat in second place, having earned $34 million in 2008. Lo, how times have changed. In the years since, Tavern closed then reopened as a reimagined concept with new owners, a new design and half the space. And fine dining, in general, has evolved, adapting a more humble and more accessible attitude to appeal to more wallet-conscious customers.
A ranking of the top independents is an important benchmark for the industry. To debut RB’s iteration, we tapped veteran editor Scott Hume, who originated the listing at R&I. What he found compiling this ranking were a number of familiar facades (including at the top of the list, but I won’t give it away here) as well as several new big names.
We also found a number of other trends as well, that have implications for the rest of the industry:
Restaurants welcome bar creep
As fine dining has become less fancy, independents have expanded their bars, offering a more accessible entry point for diners. Asked what menu additions were most successful in the past year, several on our list singled out more bar bites and small plates.
Steak houses stay strong
Still, even amid high beef prices and tight wallets, steak houses remain winners (a trend also seen with chain operations, Chicago researcher Technomic reports). Among the Top 100 Independents, classics dominate, including St. Elmo’s Steak House in Indianapolis, Keens Steakhouse in New York City and Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C.
While New York City is home to the most Top 100 independents, Las Vegas is a close second. Sin City also holds the No. 2 spot on our annual Restaurant Growth Index (see Page 74), a measure of the best places to open a restaurant today. While Atlantic City struggles, Las Vegas is thriving thanks to its stable tourist base of 3.5 million visitors a month.
What’s driving sales
Special events and word of mouth—especially through concierges and, increasingly, social media—are go-tos for independents. A few of the Top 100 also singled out rewards programs as a winning tactic for repeat business. Zehnder’s in Frankenmuth, Mich., gives diners 10 percent back after 10 transactions; Portland City Grill in Portland, Ore., issues one point for every $1 spent toward rewards such as a private wine dinner for 10 guests (30,000 points).
Most worrisome challenges
Pulling in more than $10 million in sales doesn’t exempt the top independents from the same pressures other operators face. Those on our list say food costs and government policies are causing the most headaches. Other hand-wringers: wages and the economy.