Even before the pandemic, limited-service restaurants were humbling many of their full-service brethren in growth and return on capital. Now that an end to the crisis is within planning range, making expansion a priority again, is it any wonder casual and family-dining operators are revving up concepts that will give them a presence in the fast-casual market? Some of the ventures are so new that the Wet Paint signs have just come down. Others have been in the garage for a while and are now ready to tilt their speedometer needles toward the red zone.
What’s the field look like? Here’s a rundown of several well-fueled growth vehicles and where their development stands.
Front Burner’s Son of a Butcher
The latest venture from the group that created group Twin Peaks, Whiskey Cake and a host of other full-service concepts is a retro “sliders” operation, Son of a Butcher. Parent-company Front Burner Restaurants likens the fast-casual upstart to one of its past creations, Velvet Taco. Indeed, Front Burner principals Randy DeWitt and Jack Gibbons collaborated with Velvet Taco’s original management team to come up with Son of a Butcher. The menu is small compared with the bills of fare for Front Burner’s full-service brands. The signature item is what Front Burner describes as nostalgic sliders—mini-burgers priced at $3.75 each, two for $7, three for $10 or six for $19. Other specialties included an array of smothered fries ($3.50 for cheese fries) and shakes ($4.50 each). Like Velvet Taco, the new concept also offers beer, wine and frozen cocktails. The first unit was a location inside Front Burner’s Legacy Food Hall in Dallas. The first free-standing unit is scheduled to open Dec. 14 in the Lower Greenville area of the Dallas Metroplex.
Hooters’ Hoots Wings
After four years of tinkering, Hooters is ramping up development of its fast-casual venture, Hoots. Hooters of America (HOA) announced on Monday that it would begin franchising the brand, which has been tweaked in a number of ways. For one thing, the name has changed from Hoots, A Hooters Joint, to Hoots Wings, usually written in all-lowercase. According to HOA, operations have also been simplified. An announcement of the expansion push stresses that prospective franchisees need only two pieces of equipment for their kitchens, a distinction that keeps the startup costs “on the lower end of QSR brand investments.” HOA also stresses that the concept lends itself readily to takeout and delivery. Seven are already open. The focus is sharply on wings—breaded, “naked,” boneless, roasted and smoked.
Bloomin’ Brands’ Aussie Grill by Outback
“Where else can you get a perfectly cooked steak in under 4 minutes?”teases the descriptive materials on the website for Outback Steakhouse ’s scaled-down little sister. The answer: Near term, in a lot more places. Three units are now open, and parent Bloomin’ Brands says it intends to open 10 to 15 in the coming year, possibly through franchising. Aussie Grill’s website already includes a page with financial details for prospective franchisees (the estimated initial investment: $500,000).
The list of locations shows eight additional units offering only delivery service through a third party. The food is prepared in existing Bloomin’-affiliated restaurants, but the arrangement is temporary, according to Bloomin’. Some chains have used ghost kitchens to test a brand’s viability in new markets before opening brick-and-mortar outlets.
Aussie’s menu consists of sandwiches (tagged on the digital menu as “handhelds”), salads and platters. Checks average between $10 and $12, according to the brand’s website.
Texas Roadhouse’s Jaggers
Roadhouse founder and resident eccentric Kent Taylor said pre-pandemic that he wanted to expand Jaggers, the third and often overlooked concept in the steakhouse chain’s portfolio (it also operates Bubba’s 33). Now it looks like the Kentucky cowboy is ready to roll. A third Jaggers unit is under development near Roadhouse’s headquarters in Louisville, close enough for Taylor and his team to monitor the concept and tweak it accordingly. (The first two branches are both in Indiana, a private plane ride away.)
Jaggers features a drive-thru as well as traditional fast-casual counter service. It specializes in burgers, salads, shakes, chicken sandwiches and chicken tenders. One very safe bet about the venture: It won’t offer delivery. Taylor is adamantly opposed to carting meals to patrons’ homes. But Jaggers is all about takeout.
Buffalo Wild Wings’ Go
The sports-bar chain opened its delivery-and-to-go concept in May, noting at the time that the prototype was shaped by the mother brand’s experiences early the pandemic, when the restaurants had to survive on off-premise business. Insights from the first Go outlet are expected to figure into the four units that parent-company Inspire brands intends to open early next year. New markets include San Antonio, Denver and Phoenix. Atlanta, site of the prototype (and Inspire’s headquarters), will get a second unit. One of the variables under scrutiny appears to be size. Local media reports say the second Atlanta store will be larger than the first unit, while San Antonio media indicated that those stores might be smaller.
Cracker Barrel’s Maple Street Biscuit Co.
Cracker Barrel has experimented with a lot of alternative growth vehicles over the years, from Cracker Barrel Corner Market, a takeout shop, to Logan’s Roadhouse, Punch Bowl Social and Holler and Dash. It seems to have hit on a winner with Maple Street Biscuit Co., a breakfast-and-lunch concept that specializes in freshly baked biscuits. With ample takeout options, including family-sized meals, the 35 stores currently in operation generated a same-store sales gain of 20% for the quarter ended Oct. 30.
Cracker Barrel has yet to reveal expansion plans for the 8-year-old brand. Parent-company CEO Sandy Cochran said the pipeline is currently being built. She also recently assured investors that the young concept is capable of generating $1 million in annual stores per store. In striving to hit that mark, Maple Street is experimenting with such check builders as brunchtime mimosas.
Bonchon’s next venture
Bonchon, a casual-dining concept with 250 restaurants in Asia and the Middle East, announced late last month that it will accelerate its penetration of the U.S. market by developing a fast-casual riff. The prototype is scheduled to open in the Dallas suburb of Addison in February. Like the full-service mother concept, the scaled-down Bonchon will feature Korean-style fried chicken. The chain currently has 106 restaurants in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
P.F. Chang’s To Go
Chang’s expects to open five of its big-box Bistros next year. That compares with a stated target of 15-20 To Go units. The smaller format features its big sister’s complete menu, and the cooking is all done from scratch on-premise, just as the fare is prepared in the bigger stores. But you won’t find a seat in the scaled-down operation; everything is sold for takeout and delivery. At least five are currently open, though the count is rapidly changing as Chang’s salts the New York City and Long Island markets with the venture. The units measure 1,200-1,500 square feet, compared with the 7,000 square feet of a Bistro. One of the upcoming units will feature a drive-thru.