Emerging Brands

The Future 50 gets a shot of caffeine

Coffee and "dirty soda" take center stage on this year’s ranking of up-and-coming restaurant chains, but midscale breakfast brands see plenty of room to expand and casual dining makes a comeback.
Future 50 restaurants
Rifle Coffee Company | Photograph courtesy of the brand

It seems, at least when it comes to emerging brands, Americans are looking for something to drink.

Restaurant Business’ newest Future 50 ranking of up-and-coming chains is well caffeinated with growing coffee brands and other beverage concepts. Midscale eateries also made their mark this year, with a number of players on the list embracing the breakfast, brunch and lunch dayparts.

The Future 50, which measures the fastest-growing restaurant concepts with annual U.S. sales over $20 million that are not already among the nation’s Top 500 largest chains, is compiled by RB sister company Technomic and is designed to spotlight those brands that are the future of the industry.

Many alums are now climbing the ranks of the Top 500, including Shake Shack, Dutch Bros and Freddy’s Frozen Custard.

Of course, not all brands at this stage make it into the Top 500. And even those that do are not guaranteed to stay there. Many grow too fast and hit challenges down the road, so it’s vital to find the right cadence to ensure up-and-coming brands have staying power.

Building buzz

This year’s Future 50 includes six coffee concepts, three of which are among the 10 fastest growers. Two more brands, both new to the ranking, are devoted to customizable soda fountain drinks.

The 40-unit 7 Brew Coffee, for example, saw sales increase 147% to $20.5 million in 2022 with the addition of 26 net locations. The Fayetteville, Ark.-based franchise concept is one of several using a drive-thru format, but 7 Brew promises more of a high-energy experience, with a menu that includes energy drinks, smoothies, flavored fizzy water and teas.

7 Brew also has some powerful investors, including Drink House Holdings, which includes Jimmy John’s founder Jimmy John Liautaud and Lone Star Steak House founder Jamie Coulter.

Close behind is the 26-unit Black Rifle Coffee Company, which increased sales 91% to $22.9 million in 2022, while adding 10 new units. Black Rifle, which started as a direct-to-consumer brand, is taking an omnichannel approach to both wholesale coffee and coffee shops that appeal to digital natives.

Founded by veterans, the brand has pledged to hire 10,000 former service members to help them transition to entrepreneurship.

Texas-born Summer Moon Coffee also made the top 10 with 23 units and $26.6 million in sales, up 86% in 2022. Here, coffee beans are wood-roasted over oak, and the brand is known for its sweetened cream called Moon Milk.

Meanwhile, at rapidly growing beverage concepts Swig and Fiiz, customers’ caffeine is more likely to be supplied by soda or energy drinks.

Swig is credited with spreading the joy of “dirty soda,” or sodas with customizable add-ins. The drive-thru chain is particularly favored by ice aficionados because it serves the highly sought-after pebble ice. In 2022, Swig was acquired by the Larry H. Miller Co., or LHM, a Utah business group once known for owning the NBA team Utah Jazz. Utah-based Savory Fund also holds a significant stake in Swig, as does founder Nicole Tanner.

Pebble ice can also be found at Fiiz, also born in Utah, where non-alcoholic drinks are much in demand. Fiiz, which had 52 units in 2022, was ahead of Swig, with 46, but Swig led in sales, and the franchise brands are likely to be squabbling for market share for years to come.

Beyond quick-service

And though the Future 50 tends to favor limited-service brands, this year’s ranking boasts nine midscale concepts, most of which are breakfast, lunch and brunch focused, like the Southern-leaning Huckleberry’s to the more straightforward Big Bad Breakfast, Toasted Yolk Cafe, Eggs Up Grill and Breakfast Republic.

A standout in the midscale category is the fried-chicken concept Gus’s, which spent decades as a tiny hole in the wall in Mason, Tenn.—albeit with a global reputation—before the family of the original chef, Napoleon “Na” Vanderbilt, began franchising in 2001.

And then there’s Sweet Paris, a crepe concept with both sweet and savory offerings that began in Houston and has been franchising since 2017.

Several casual-dining brands are also among these fastest growers. Mexican concepts Agave & Rye, specializing in tacos and tequila, and Kalaveras, an Instagrammable urban cantina, both ended 2022 with 15 units. The Detroit-pizza-focused Emmy Squared hit the 20-unit mark, as did the Brazilian churrascaria Rodizio Grill.

And one of the most interesting concepts on this year’s Future 50 list is also the only eatertainment brand in the mix: Chicken N Pickle, a restaurant that features pickleball courts. The all-ages paddle sport is said to be the fastest-growing in the country, and players will likely embrace opportunities to gather for food, drinks and events.

Here's a link to the full Future 50 list.



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