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Which are tomorrow’s hot restaurant concepts?

The hottest growth concepts feature inexpensive and focused menus and a lot of salads, bowls and bubble tea.
Buzzworthy Brands Trends
Photograph: Shutterstock

Never mind restaurants. Let’s talk mousetraps. 

Concept innovation, after all, tends to come in two forms, both relatable to the cause of Mickey and Minnie’s flop sweats.  An upstart restaurant brand tends to be anointed as an up-and-comer either because it promises a marked improvement over established options—think better burgers, fast-casual pizza or drive-thru coffee—or it provides a whole new mechanism for catching customers, a la 16 Handles, Spin or, way back when, Starbucks. 

Shaped by the unprecedented experiences of 2020, this year’s crop of emerging brands exemplifies both sorts of better mousetraps.  

Features that found favor during the pandemic, particularly any means of facilitating to-go business, were amalgamated into novel newcomers. Salad and Go sells salads, but via a drive-thru, and at the bargain price of $5.74. Its menu is short and simple, another trait that proved an advantage during the pandemic and now appears to have legs. The options consist of just salads and breakfast burritos, with protein options limited to chicken, shrimp and tofu.   

But then there are the one-of-a-kinds. Meal packs—a complete meal served in a box for takeout or delivery--were a novelty before the pandemic forced every restaurant to become a takeout and delivery specialist.  Concepts of all stripes added family meals, meal kits and catering orders pre-portioned into single servings, the latter a way of feeding a group without requiring them to share serving utensils or platters. Number 3 on our ranking of Buzzworthy Brands this year is Apple Spice Junction, a 23-year-old operation that offers just boxed lunches for delivery.   

What’s true of many concepts on this year’s ranking of up-and-coming brands, compiled for Restaurant Business by Technomic, is that they’re particularly easy to scale. Many have a small footprint and simple, focused kitchens, “factors that make it significantly easier to expand rapidly,” says Kevin Schimpf, Technomic’s senior manager of industry research. Seating is also limited—there’s not a full-service concept on the list.  

It’s not a coincidence concepts of that sort ended up on the roster, says Schimpf.  The ranking is based on year-over-year sales growth, and with customers hunkering down at home for most of 2020, same-store growth was less of a driver than usual. “Location expansion proved to be the primary driver of growth for this year’s batch of Buzzworthy Brands,” says Schimpf. 

Also not coincidentally, he says, “many concepts in the group [have] a strong focus on just a few core menu items. While this certainly makes operations more efficient, there’s a big downside if your core menu item eventually goes off-trend.” 

The list abounds in concepts, both amalgamations and the truly novel, specializing in three types of products. Here are those buzz-making items, along with the twists they’re sporting over brands that came before. 

Bowls 

We toyed with the idea of calling the roster Buzzworthy Bowls. The 2021 roster abounds in young brands specializing in that form of presentation, which promises the advantage of traveling well for takeout or delivery. For the same reason, and because of bowls’ apparent popularity with consumers, plenty of other concepts on the list offer their signature items in that form.  Three of the Top Five on this year’s ranking feature bowls. 

The bowl specialists tend to sport plenty of New Age-y mix-ins that provide a halo of health. Acai is a common one, and the possibilities extend to algae, dragon fruit, chia and bananas.  

Among the new options provided by Buzzworthy inclusions: Everbowl’s offer to follow up a unit visit with a later shipment of bowls to customers’ homes. 

Bubble tea 

Drinks enriched with boba—tapioca pearls that are suspended in the beverages—may be to this year’s list what poke was to past up-and-coming rankings.  

Like poke, bubble tea has been available in the mainstream U.S. market for decades but appears to be undergoing a rediscovery. This year’s roster includes a number of emerging providers that can tout authenticity, a long heritage and something different. Sharetea, Number 8 on the list, came out of Taiwan 19 years ago and has a large global presence but only 100 stores in the U.S.  

Fifteen-year-old Gong Cha, Number 20, also hails from Taiwan and has an even smaller U.S. presence with 88 stores. Its point of difference is an emphasis on fresh—the elements of its drinks were prepared no more than four hours prior to sale. 

Salads 

Dare we say it? Salad specialists are the, um, evergreen concepts of our up-and-comer rankings, a concept type almost guaranteed to find a berth year after year. Every generation tends to embrace the latest ingredient or prep method tagged as healthful—in this year’s case, mixing vitamins into the greens—while promising more freshness than salad fans have seen before.  

And, of course, they lend themselves to being served in bowls. 

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