Operations

In a tough year for casual dining, Asian concepts were clear winners

Sushi and Korean barbecue were on fire in 2023. Full-service pizza, meanwhile, came up cold.
Gen Korean BBQ restaurant New York
Sales rose 10.3% at Gen Korean BBQ last year. | Photo: Shutterstock

Amid a stagnant market for casual-dining restaurants last year, concepts that specialize in Asian cuisine were a clear bright spot.

Asian casual-dining chains averaged system sales growth of more than 24% in 2023, according to data from Technomic’s Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report. That was nearly 6 times the average for casual dining as a whole. 

That number was inflated, though, by the runaway success of KPOT Korean BBQ and Hot Pot, a 55-unit chain where guests cook raw ingredients over a grill that is built into the table. The Rockville, Maryland-based brand opened 39 new locations in 2023, and sales exploded by more than 250%.

But even without KPOT, Asian was still the winner in casual dining by a healthy margin. Sales growth averaged more than 9% among the other 15 Asian casual-dining chains on the Top 500 ranking. Mexican concepts were the next closest, with sales growth of 7.6%.

In the Asian category, sales were especially strong at sushi chains such as Kura (32.8% sales growth) and concepts where customers do some of the cooking themselves, such as Gen Korean BBQ (10.6%), Boiling Point (8.8%) and of course, KPOT.

Interactive, group dining occasions like these have been in demand coming out of the pandemic. Eatertainment chains such as Pinstripes and TopGolf saw double-digit growth last year, as did seafood boil concepts such as The Juicy Crab, Crafty Crab and Boiling Crab. Asian formats like sushi and hot pot lend themselves to the same sort of experiential and social occasions, and they boast new and exotic flavors to boot.

[Check out the complete list of Top 500 chains.]

Cold pizza

At the other end of the spectrum were full-service pizza and Italian chains, which badly underperformed the broader casual-dining segment. Sales at these concepts grew just 0.8% in 2023 compared to 4.7% for casual dining overall.

Chains focused on pizza did especially poorly. Sales fell 10% at California Pizza Kitchen as it closed more than 20 locations, and 10% at Uno Pizzeria & Grill, which shuttered eight stores. Old Chicago also struggled, with sales down 8% as it closed seven locations.

These brands suffered from a number of issues. Many are located near malls or shopping centers that have had their own traffic struggles in recent years, said Kevin Schimpf, director of industry research at Technomic. They’ve also been hurt by the boom in pizza delivery during the pandemic that favored quick-service chains like Domino’s and Papa Johns. 

“Consumers now see pizza primarily as a delivery or carry-out item instead of something you sit down and enjoy at a full-service restaurant,” Schimpf said.

And then there are the aforementioned experiential concepts, which have begun to replace pizza as a reliable group dining option. 

There was one standout in the full-service pizza segment worth noting: Emmy Squared Pizza, the 24-unit Brooklyn-based chain, saw sales jump nearly 32% last year. That could be due in part to its focus on Detroit-style pizza, the deep-dish, square-cut variety that has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. 

It also offers brunch, catering and event rentals, giving it a number of revenue streams beyond the traditional sit-down pizza experience. The chain now has locations throughout the East Coast and Southeast, and appears to be in growth mode.

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