Representing $1.72 billion in total sales in 2018 and 1,666 total units, The Future 50 chains represent an impressive portion of the restaurant business. More importantly, they're all growing. With a median sale growth of 34% and 34 of the 50 chains opening at least five new units last year, these are the chains on the rise. The ones to look at for. But what is it that these successful emerging brands predict about the next generation of concepts and consumer interests?
1. Emerging brands with deep pockets
It takes cash to grow, of course. And several chains on the Future 50 list have been successful in drawing interest from investors. Vegan concept By Chloe (No. 5) received $31 million from several capital funds last year. Health-focused Flower Child (No. 11) has received funding from The Cheesecake Factory, and Honeygrow (No. 29) has raised $70 million in lifetime funding. In April, Dig Inn Seasonal Market (No. 42) caught the eye of restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Enlightened Hospitality Fund, receiving $15 million to grow the chain and its proprietary delivery service.
2. Fast casual remains the growth epicenter
Which dining segment is growing the fastest? There’s no contest. More than half (59%) of this year’s Future 50 list are fast-casual concepts. The sector melds well with the current realities of the restaurant industry: Fast casuals can often operate in a smaller, and sometimes flexible, footprint. Compared to full service, they often have reduced staffing needs. And because of the format, fast-casual menus are often suited to and developed with off-premise consumption in mind.
3. Veg-forward grows up
There’s more to better-for-you, plant-focused menus than simply salads. This year’s Future 50 class features the vegan comfort foods of By Chloe (No. 5), wellness-focused whole foods at Clean Eatz (No. 37) and the “mostly vegetables” menu of Dig Inn (No. 42), among others. “Now, more than ever, there’s every aspect of health-focused chains on there,” says Kevin Schimpf, Technomic industry research manager. “There’s the full suite of health-focused things.” Half of all consumers say they eat vegetarian or vegan dishes at least once a month, according to Technomic’s Seafood & Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report, lending fuel to the growth of vegetable-focused concepts.
4. Ethnic eats maximize their health halo
Even consumers who aren’t looking to forgo animal protein say they’re trying to select less indulgent items for at least some meals. Mediterranean chains such as The Simple Greek (No. 4) and Roti Modern Mediterranean (No. 34) as well as Asian concepts such as Pokeworks (No. 3) and Bibibop Asian Grill (No. 9) offer flavor-packed, customizable menus with plenty of lighter choices.
5. Meeting the snacking demand
Consumers are now snacking an average of three times a day, often at unpredictable times, according to Technomic. And operators are meeting that snacking demand in a variety of ways. Duck Donuts (No. 21), Insomnia Cookies (No. 41) and 85C Bakery Cafe (No. 15) offer snack-ready options. Even more meal-focused chains, such as Dog Haus (No. 40), are serving snack-sized sliders and mini corn dogs for all-day bites.
6. Burgers remain a timeless favorite
The hamburger has been presented in virtually every possible permutation, from bite-sized sliders to meatless variations and half-pounders piled high with toppings. But if this year’s list is any indication, there’s still plenty of consumer excitement around burgers. The No. 1 chain, Burgerim, which grew sales 277.8% in 2018, offers 3-ounce burgers in a variety of proteins. Wahlburgers (No. 8) generates buzz because of the celebrity brothers who own the chain, but it’s also known for its patties made with a mix of brisket, short rib and chuck. And Slater’s 50/50 (No. 25) distinguishes itself with burgers made with a beef-and-bacon blend.
7. Full service sputters
Just 11 of this year’s Future 50 chains are full service. And a look at those concepts reveals that many of the winning brands don’t follow the casual-dining mold. Some serve breakfast and lunch only, such as Eggs Up Grill (No. 49), The Flying Biscuit Cafe (No. 35) and Famous Toastery (No. 20), which also has a full bar. Others focus on making dining an experience, such as eatertainment concepts Punch Bowl Social (No. 26) and Pinstripes (No. 44).
8. Seafood ditches white tablecloths
Seafood, once reserved for upscale dining, is showing off its casual versatility. Whether in a poke bowl at Pokeworks (No. 3) or Ahipoki Bowl (No. 32), fish tacos at Slapfish (No. 12) or a boiled crawfish basket at LA Crawfish (No. 33), seafood is clearly a popular menu focus for emerging chains. Nearly half of all seafood consumers say they would be likely to order build-your-own seafood bowls, according to Technomic. “Seafood as a whole tends to struggle, especially full-service seafood,” Schimpf says. “These emerging chains could be a sign of things to come: seafood from a different price point and a different service point.”
9. Banking on beverages
Concepts focused on nonalcoholic beverages are a growth vehicle. Coffee chains Blue Bottle Coffee (No. 16) and Philz Coffee (No. 38), as well as juice concept Joe & the Juice (No. 48), are proving that consumers are interested in drinks beyond the big chains, whether for a pick-me-up, meal replacement or another occasion. Consumers are especially interested in beverages boasting health benefits—a potential area of growth. Fifty-five percent, for example, say they’re ordering kombucha and shrubs more often than they were two years ago, according to Technomic.
10. There's still room for growth in fast-casual pizza
While major pizza players such as Blaze and MOD Pizza have pulled away from the pack, small concepts are still on the move. Five growing fast-casual pizza brands made this year’s Future 50: Your Pie (No. 13), The Pizza Press (No. 14), Rapid Fired Pizza (No. 17), 1000 Degrees Neapolitan Pizza (No. 27) and &pizza (No. 30). They’re regional, “but there’s still growth there,” Schimpf says.