Today, they’re baby concepts, relatively speaking. They’re the restaurant brands that are just getting started or are now making landfall in the United States. But as 2019 continues? They just might be the next big thing. Here are five restaurants to keep an eye on this year.
1. Robot-driven fast casual
Bowl-based fast-casual chains are nothing new. But Boston’s Spyce riffs on that theme with robots operating the woks and dispensing the ingredients. The potentially labor-saving concept was founded in 2015 by four graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has since received more than $20 million in financing. It’s also attracted the attention of big-name chefs, including Thomas Keller, Gavin Kaysen and Daniel Boulud, Spyce’s culinary director.
2. New fast casual from a big brand
It’s still “coming soon,” but Social Monk Asian Kitchen—the latest endeavor from The Cheesecake Factory—is slated to open in early 2019. The fast casual comes with the deep-pocket backing of the legacy brand, which also plans to buy the North Italia casual-dining chain from Fox Restaurant Concepts late this year. Social Monk is scheduled to open in Thousand Oaks, Calif., with a pan-Asian menu as well as beer and wine.
3. The Shake Shack of tacos?
Every time Danny Meyer opens a new restaurant, questions about whether it will be the next Shake Shack abound. Things were no different last summer when Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group launched Tacocina in a waterfront park in Brooklyn. Like Shake Shack, Tacocina offers up a simplified menu, featuring just six taco choices and a few sides and beverages. Meyer has declined to say whether expansion plans are in the works.
4. British invasion
United Kingdom-based quick-service chain Leon has begun its U.S. approach, opening one unit in Washington, D.C., last fall and recently announcing plans for a second location opening this spring. The eco-focused concept, with 60 European units, powers its stores with sustainable energy and uses compostable packaging. Leon, which bills itself as serving “naturally fast food,” has a Mediterranean-focused menu and was founded in 2004 by former Procter & Gamble exec John Vincent.
5. Follow the money
A couple of big industry players have made it known that they’re out to purchase new concepts. Mega-funder and private-equity firm Roark Capital, which has acquired 65 restaurant brands in its lifetime, announced in October that it had raised another $6.5 billion. Also concept shopping is Dine Brands, the parent company of Applebee’s and IHOP, which is looking to snatch up a fast-casual chain. The company recently hired a mergers and acquisitions veteran as its CFO.