Even with the pandemic now a distant memory, restaurant entrepreneurs continued to tinker with the economic model, looking for new ways to boost margins.
In 2023, operators moved away from ideas like ghost kitchens and virtual brands. This year, they embraced notions of vertical integration, the use of commissary kitchens and anything that allowed them to operate restaurants with fewer humans.
And there are a few particularly interesting concepts to watch, including some that have barely gotten started but show promise. Here are some projects to keep an eye on in 2024:
It isn’t expected to open until January, but the new concept being developed by former Chipotle founder Steve Ells already has the industry’s attention.
Dubbed Kernel, the fast-casual concept is coming to New York City where it will serve up a plant-based menu. The restaurant is designed to be fully automated, supported by as few as three humans, in a space about 800-square feet. The outlets will be served by a central kitchen in a hub-and-spoke model.
Ells has raised at least $36 million in Series A funding and he plans to open 15 locations in New York in the next two years, and then more elsewhere. If it works, Ells has also talked about licensing the technology to other restaurant concepts.
This past year saw the tires deflate on a number of plant-based burger chains, but one appears to have potential: Hart House. Actor and comedian Kevin Hart launched the concept in 2022, and the chain has opened four locations in the Los Angeles area.
Maybe the hysteria over vegan burgers is done, but Hart House has the brains to build the brand without anti-meat hype. Leading it as CEO is the former &Pizza president Andy Hooper, and the menu was developed by former Burger King head of culinary Mike Salem. And, of course, there’s the Hollywood-grade marketing team equipped to mine Hart’s deep A-list connections.
This Japanese-born concept is a 500-unit chain in 15 countries, but there are only five in the U.S., mostly around Los Angeles. Earlier this year, however, Pepper Lunch franchising launched in North America and Troy Hooper was named co-CEO of parent Hot Palette Holdings to help grow the brand.
A sort of “DIY teppanyaki,” the fast-casual Pepper Lunch is known for its customizable rice bowls served on a sizzling cast-iron dish that cooks the thinly sliced proteins as it comes to the table. It’s quick, affordable and offers a fun interactive experience with authentic flavors. The company is working on technology that will adapt the dishes for takeout and delivery.
Watch this one particularly closely because it’s still a bit of a mystery. Chipotle in 2023 tested a new concept called Farmesa Fresh Eatery, a healthful brand with a menu created by Nate Appleman, who also developed the short-lived Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen brand for Chipotle.
Farmesa was tested as a digital, mostly delivery concept out of a Kitchen United location in Santa Monica, Calif. In October, the outlet closed but the company said it was moving ahead with the test by moving it into the company’s Cultivate Center, with the goal of refining the brand to open as a standalone restaurant. Time will tell whether that actually happens, but for Chipotle fans looking for something new from the brand, this could be it.
Restaurateur David Zhao is only 29 years old but he has a growing multi-brand restaurant empire and American Wagyu cattle ranch that is promising great things. Zhao’s Chubby Cattle International has 14 restaurants and another 25 slated for 2024. Concepts include the full-service brands like Niku X and The X Pot Wagyu House, but also multiple locations of the hot pot concept Chubby Cattle and derivations like Chubby Curry and Chubby (boba) Tea. Wagyu appears across the group’s menus, in part because the company includes a Wagyu cattle ranch in California and Oregon to control meat production. And there’s a Chubby Club loyalty program that crosses all concepts, as well as related CPG products in retail stores.
This is not one concept but a segment that is re-emerging, after the pandemic era threatened to bring an end to such concepts. Now they're coming back fast and furious to give experience-hungry consumers an opportunity to get out and play. Concepts like Bowlero and Top Golf are leading the way for eatertainment venues ranging from pickleball and ping pong to surfing and even curling. Expect to see more of these offering new and innovative ways to gather for food, drink and fun.
This story is part of Restaurant Business' look back at 2023. Click here to read other year-end coverage.
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