Truly innovative concepts—those that find solutions to perennial problems like rising real estate and labor costs—are rare birds indeed. Here’s a look at some of the game-changers that opened in 2017.
1. Minigrow: Small-footprint savior
Fast-casual stir-fry chain Honeygrow launched its mini-sized spinoff concept Minigrow in October and just received an $18 million cash infusion to expand the brand. Minigrow operates with about 50 fewer SKUs than its parent chain, with a streamlined kitchen that shaves about 700 square feet off the original footprint.
2. Birdcall: Labor savings through tech
Birdcall, a fast-casual fried chicken concept out of Denver, uses customized software loaded onto on-brand honeycomb-yellow kiosks to simplify the ordering process and reduce front-of-house staff. Guests grab completed orders, which appear in numbered cubbies. The growing chain recently opened a unit inside a Whole Foods.
3. Halo Top Scoop Shops: Better-for-you retail’s brick-and-mortar splash
High-protein, low-calorie ice cream company Halo Top, which has been outselling industry titans like Ben & Jerry’s in retail, opened its first brick-and-mortar scoop shop in November in a Los Angeles mall. The chain plans to expand, riding a wave of consumer interest in all-day snacks and less-indulgent dessert offerings.
4. Wow Bao: Automat-style steamed buns
When high-tech, automat-style Eatsa announced in October that it was closing all but two units while making its tech platform available to license, industry watchers didn’t have to wait long to see who would be the first to scoop it up. Chicago-based fast casual Wow Bao, recently purchased by a tech-focused private-equity firm, opened the doors of its first automat-style unit in December. Consumers order via kiosk, steamed buns and other dishes are prepped behind closed doors, and finished orders appear from behind 12 LED screen-covered cubbies. The move cuts down on front-of-house labor and allows the store to operate with minimal square footage. All new Wow Baos will follow this model, the company says.
5. Tesla lounges: Restaurant and charging station hybrid
As c-stores continue to upgrade their foodservice offerings, Tesla is taking the trend in a direction all its own. The electric-car maker is adding food and beverage service to a growing network of owners-only lounges around the country. The lounges, which are open 24 hours a day and accessible via a code on the car’s touchscreen, serve ready-to-eat food and drinks. The stations, two of which are currently open, also include a climbing wall for kids, a retail shop for branded merchandise and a dog-walking area. Tesla’s U.S. network of charging stations is small, but is expected to expand as sales of the electric vehicles climb.