3 menu types driving growth among emerging restaurant chains
Each year, when Restaurant Business ranks the 50 fastest-growing emerging chains, certain menu categories rise to the top. The ever-popular burger category always has a few entrants, and pizza’s representation on the list has been growing, especially as the build-your-own fast-casual pizza concepts continue to gain traction. Mexican, Asian and Mediterranean make up the vast majority of the ethnic concepts on the Future 50 ranking. This year, some are getting even more specialized, with a focus on poke, halal foods and more. Read on for the chains within these menu segments that made the list, ranked in partnership with Technomic.
1000 Degrees Neapolitan Pizza
Future 50 ranking: 11
With several customizable pizza concepts that cook pies in minutes, this growing brand focuses on Neapolitan-style pies made with quality ingredients. 1000 Degrees sets itself apart with its 100-year old dough recipe from Naples that’s made with a fork-style mixer—not a dough hook—and is hand-stretched. The chain offers more than 40 sauces, cheeses and other toppings, along with wings and salads. The chain also recently added a self-serve beer and wine option for its franchisees.
Future 50 ranking: 13
Your Pie first opened in 2008, making it relatively old in the fast-casual pizza sector. The chain has been overshadowed by a number of larger players in more recent years, but that could change based on its recent growth in sales and unit count. The chain boasts pizzas such as the Southern Heat, with Buffalo sauce, mozzarella, chicken, red onions and jalapeno. And unlike some of its competitors, its menu goes beyond pizza with panini and gelato, along with chopped salads and a selection of beer and wine.
Future 50 ranking: 22
Fast casual’s proud iconoclast continues to challenge sector conventions with adjustments to each unit’s setting. A branch serving Washington, D.C.’s hip new “micro-hotel,” Hotel Hive, for instance, features a breakfast menu of sweet and savory a.m. pizzas, cold-pressed juices, yogurt and fruit. The chain received an infusion of growth capital last year from RSE Ventures, which &pizza has invested in talent development and opening units in New York, Miami and Boston, according to a spokesperson.
Pies & Pints
Future 50 ranking: 41
As its name implies, Pies & Pints’ menu is centered on specialty pizza and craft beer. Consumers can stop in for weekly happy hours and special events, such as local brewery takeovers. Each location includes a white elephant mural based on the one that was found while building the original location. As the chain is expanding outside of its home state of West Virginia, it has maintained a large following there: It’s the state’s most recommended restaurant on Facebook, according to USA Today.
Future 50 ranking: 3
Wahlburgers has carved out its place in the better-burger sector, thanks in part to its founders: celebrity brothers Paul, Donnie and Mark Wahlberg. The chain, which saw a CEO shakeup last month, recently opened a 5,500-square-foot unit at Mall of America in Minnesota. It also partnered with Hy-Vee last year to build, own and operate 26 units in the Midwest, making the grocery store the brand’s largest single franchisee. To further its reach, it launched Wahlburgers at Home, a retail beef product line.
Future 50 ranking: 29
Its tagline, “Food with roots,” reinforces B.Good’s ethos of local sourcing, farmer partnerships and sustainability. Although it’s positioned as a better-burger concept, the fast casual’s menu extends far beyond, offering a changing roster of seasonal salads and a large selection of kale and grain bowls. B.Good originated in Boston and began franchising in 2013; its 53 locations are now spread across 12 states as well as Canada, Germany and Switzerland.
Future 50 ranking: 32
A demo-style kitchen, tabletops made from recycled water bottles and sustainable to-go packaging reinforce Burger Lounge’s eco-friendly, transparent message. Although other players in the crowded better-burger space also promote sustainability, this fast casual promotes itself with the tagline “The original grass-fed burger.” Those burgers form the core of the menu, along with turkey, tuna and veggie burgers, salads, sides and shakes. Local beers are also available.
Hopdoddy Burger Bar
Future 50 ranking: 32
“Unicorn casual” is how CEO Jeff Chandler describes Hopdoddy. “We transcend fast casual into a variation of casual dining. That makes us ‘rare,’” like a unicorn, he says. Chandler applies that uniqueness to growth as well. “We won’t stamp out identical cookie-cutter restaurants in every market,” he says, instead working with a prototype that can adapt to different sites. Hopdoddy is on pace to open one location a month through 2019, focusing on central Florida and the rest of the Southeast.
Burger & Beer Joint
Future 50 ranking: 49
This full-service spot with a rock ’n’ roll vibe has its sights set on national expansion. The chain, which pairs craft beer with a craft burger menu, offers a build-your-own option with a range of premium proteins and toppings, as well as a number of signatures, including its $135 The Mother Burger!—a 10-pound Angus beef burger. The majority of its locations are in Florida, though it is expanding along the East Coast, with a unit on tap for Washington, D.C., this year.
The Halal Guys
Future 50 ranking: 2
Fast-paced growth continues for The Halal Guys, which topped last year’s Future 50 list. The Middle Eastern fast casual’s trajectory includes dozens of new units, a growing loyalty program and a delivery push via third-party partners. About 10% of traffic comes through delivery services, so the chain has reconfigured its units to accommodate pickup orders, added parking spaces for delivery drivers, and has revamped its bagging procedure to account for multiple off-premise orders.
Future 50 ranking: 5
In December, the fast-casual, customizable stir-fry concept announced it had raised an additional $18 million in funding, bringing its lifetime total to $70 million. A portion of the latest cash infusion will be used to expand Honeygrow’s small-footprint offshoot, Minigrow. Some will also be used to provide tech upgrades and develop a combined loyalty app for the two concepts.
Bibibop Asian Grill
Future 50 ranking: 6
To help fuel its growth, this fast casual, which launched in 2013, is taking over the spaces of another Asian fast casual: Bibibop bought the failed Chipotle spinoff ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen last year and assumed the leases of all 15 units. To differentiate itself, the chain features customizable rice bowls topped with proteins, vegetables and sauces—a play on the traditional Korean bibimbap. The chain recently added miso soup with seasonal toppings to the menu.
Babalu Tapas & Tacos
Future 50 ranking: 7
This full-service, shared-plates concept is poised for expansion with the recent promotion of industry vet Abe Ruiz to CEO. Ruiz has a lengthy resume of full-service experience, including a stint as chief operating officer of Famous Dave’s. Babalu, which first opened in 2010, looks for real estate in revitalizing neighborhoods. The restaurants are notable for their social atmosphere and soundtrack of Latin music.
Future 50 ranking: 8
Using technology to “enhance the human experience, not replace it,” is one of the pillars for Cava, says Brett Schulman, CEO of the Mediterranean fast casual that has raised more than $130 million in funding since its founding in 2011. Don't expect to see robots at Cava anytime soon, but the chain does use tech to improve the guest experience. Cava plans to roll out a new digital ordering and loyalty platform early next year, Schulman says. And the chain is also testing delivery, both with in-house and third-party drivers. The Mediterranean concept is also growing its brand with a line of dressings and sauces through a retail partnership with Whole Foods.
Future 50 ranking: 9
Modern consumers gravitate toward health halos such as fresh and clean, and that’s what Ahipoki Bowl trades on through its customizable poke bowls. Its menu features a range of seafood options, including tuna, salmon, yellowtail and shrimp, to be paired with authentic Asian ingredients and add-ins. The chain, which is expanding throughout the Western U.S., recently debuted in Seattle and has partnered with a third-party delivery company to make a play in the off-premise space.
Naf Naf Grill
Future 50 ranking: 13
Naf Naf Grill is making a push to bring shawarma to the masses. As part of that, the chain—which is owned by private-equity firm Roark Capital—brought over Paul Damico, former Focus Brands president, as CEO. “The concept is ready to be franchised,” he told Restaurant Business in January. This year, it also launched a digital app, in part to capitalize on the off-premise boom. In addition to online sales from that app and its website, Naf Naf is focusing on catering as a sales driver.
Kura Revolving Sushi Bar
Future 50 ranking: 15
In the U.S., Kura is a rapidly growing chain that serves sushi and Japanese side dishes. In Japan, however, the chain is widespread, with more than 385 locations throughout the island. Kura brings high-tech elements to the rotating sushi bar concept: Customers place an order on a touch panel, and food is delivered on a conveyor belt. Sushi arrives within a minute, and a side item in about four minutes. There’s a slot on the side of the table for empty plates.
Future 50 ranking: 16
R Taco was acquired last year as part of Arby’s purchase of Buffalo Wild Wings. But the chain was hardly a throw-in. Despite activist pressure, BWW held onto the fast-casual taco chain, even as it sold its pizza concept, PizzaRev. Now, R Taco gives its parent, the newly created Inspire Brands, a growth concept. The chain, formerly known as Rusty Taco, offers a wide selection of tacos, including versions with fried chicken, achiote pork, fried fish, beef brisket and grilled vegetables, as well as all-day breakfast tacos.
The Simple Greek
Future 50 ranking: 17
The Simple Greek is known for its relationship with Marcus Lemonis, host of CNBC series “The Profit.” On the show, Lemonis turns around a struggling business and buys a stake in it, something he did for The Simple Greek, then known as My Big Fat Greek Gyro. It was converted into a fast casual, serving customizable bowls and pitas, hummus, lentil soup and desserts. Since then, the chain has been in growth mode, opening 17 units in 2017, with 30 more planned for this year.
Future 50 ranking: 23
Teriyaki Madness describes its menu as “Seattle teriyaki,” a reference to the Asian-bowl joints that dot the progressive Pacific Northwest city. The fast-casual concept has grown from its first location in 2003 to about 50 stores nationwide, but it talks a much bigger story. It has signed deals for 140 new franchise stores and also expects to have 100 units open within a decade in Mexico, where its first international outpost is slated to open later this year.
Tin Lizzy's Cantina
Future 50 ranking: 37
This full-service taqueria chain promotes its menu as “FlexMex”: Tex-Mex influenced by other cuisines such as Asian and coastal American favorites. The chain has expanded from its home state of Georgia into Florida and South Carolina and continues to develop its menu, recently rolling out veggie-forward options such as grilled portobello tacos. As it grows, new restaurants integrate decor specific to the local market, all while maintaining the overall party vibe, which includes live music most nights.
Future 50 ranking: 48
Bakersfield is a Mexican chain focused on three things: tacos, tequila and whiskey. The Mexi-Cali chain blends Mexican street food, margaritas and classic country music. The restaurant—which gained some notoriety appearing on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” saying it produces as many as 2,000 tortillas a day—caters to a lively, fun crowd, with an approachable atmosphere including communal wood tables and a large bar area.