By their very nature, emerging chains—with their relatively small unit counts and nimble executive teams—favor innovation. Examining the commonalities in these growth concepts can highlight broader industry trends. Here’s a glimpse at some of the industry-disrupting trends emerging from the 2018 Future 50 class.
1. New avenues in customization
Operators are capitalizing on the steady demand for build-your-own options by branching out into new customizable cuisines. Seventy-seven percent of consumers say they’d like to see fast-casual restaurants offer more build-your-own options, and 73% say the same for quick-service concepts, according to Technomic’s 2018 Future of LSR Consumer Trend Report. And restaurants such as Duck Donuts (No. 10) and Piada Italian Street Food (No. 47) are bringing customization into new territories in the form of design-your-own doughnuts and create-your-own grilled handhelds.
2. Seafood becomes everyday fare
If this year’s Future 50 list is any indication, seafood is breaking free from its white tablecloth pedigree. From casual-dining brand The Lost Cajun (No. 19) to fast casuals Ahipoki Bowl (No. 9), LA Crawfish (No. 24) and Luke’s Lobster (No. 40), seafood is showing up in sandwiches, bowls and other approachable formats. The trend will likely continue as consumers seek out protein options beyond red meat and poultry.
3. Industry vets see opportunity in emerging brands
The entrepreneurial spirit gets reinvigorated as large-chain executives with decades of experience make the leap to growing brands. B.Good (No. 29), for example, recently named former Dunkin’ Brands executive Chris Fuqua as its CEO, while former Qdoba President Tim Casey became CEO of Inspire Brands’ R Taco (No. 16) concept. Panera Bread Chairman Ron Shaich, who stepped down as the company’s CEO this year to work as a consultant for small chains, expressed his passion for emerging brands at the 2018 Restaurant Leadership Conference. “The world doesn’t need us for the status quo,” Shaich said in his keynote address.
4. Booze moves into new and unexpected locations
There’s no question: Alcohol drives sales and boosts check averages. Twenty-one percent of millennial consumers say they’d be very likely to order adult beverages from fast-food concepts, and 40% say the same for fast-casual restaurants, according to Technomic’s Future of LSR Report. And operators are taking note, incorporating craft beer and housemade cocktails everywhere from fast-casual sandwich hot dog concept Dog Haus (No. 12) to midscale breakfast operations Famous Toastery (No. 18) and Snooze, an A.M. Eatery (No. 34).
5. Better-for-you grows up
Health halos are driving traffic and sales as consumers seek out “clean,” “natural” and protein-enriched dishes. Seventy-one percent of diners say they’re likely to buy food described as “real,” and 63% say they’d spend money on items labeled “natural,” according to Technomic’s Future of LSR Report. Look no further than CoreLife Eatery, this year’s No. 1 Future 50 chain, with its menu of protein-packed bowls, for an example of how operators are embracing this changing definition of health.
6. Restaurateurs get data smart
Capturing customer data is one thing; knowing how to use it is another entirely. Growing chains such as Cava (No. 8) and Honeygrow (No. 5) are upgrading their loyalty programs with the goal of transforming customer data into targeted marketing opportunities to grow repeat-client business.
7. Sneaking in nonintrusive technology
Striking the balance between technology and a warm, inviting customer experience is a tightrope operators continue to walk. As restaurateurs get more familiar with consumers’ technological preferences, they’re learning the best ways to incorporate kiosk ordering, tabletop payments and more—without intruding into the guest experience. Snooze, an A.M. Eatery (No. 34), for example, plans to test tablet-based ordering and payment this fall to see whether diners at the experiential concept will favor frictionless service over personal engagement.
8. Breakfast takes center stage
It’s hard to overstate the growing importance of the morning meal. From breakfast-focused midscale concepts Yolk (No. 31) and Keke’s Breakfast Cafe (No. 39) to cafes such as Blue Bottle Coffee (No. 38) and Philz Coffee (No. 44) to fast-casuals like Honeygrow (No. 5) and Maple Street Biscuit Co. (No. 4), operators are finding that the first meal of the day truly is the most important, at least for the bottom line. They’re menuing creative riffs on traditional breakfast foods, boosting check averages with booze and housemade juices and delivering on growing consumer demand for off-premise morning meal options.
9. Capturing millennial diners with more than a meal
Millennials crave an experience when dining out, not just a well-cooked plate of food. Operators are driving traffic from this coveted group by cultivating a highly social atmosphere with communal tables, shareable plates and even games. Witness the success of new-school eatertainment brand Punch Bowl Social (No. 28), shareable plates and music-focused concept Babalu Tapas & Tacos (No. 7) and the interactive Kura Revolving Sushi Bar (No. 15) to see the importance an engaging guest experience has for sales.
10. Fine casual gets fine-tuned
Experiential dining no longer means white tablecloth. But the same tenets of fine-dining service and quality are bleeding into the fast-casual sector. The upshot? Fine-fast brands such as farm-to-table Dig Inn Seasonal Market (No. 42) and premium seafood chain Luke’s Lobster (no. 40) are proving that this emerging category has room for growth.