The year’s most copy-able restaurant concepts

By 

The Den

As resourceful noncommercial operators know, inspiration comes in all forms, including from that other side of the foodservice aisle: restaurants. Countless foodservice directors, from colleges to corporate cafeterias, have cited Chipotle as the inspiration for their own proprietary concepts and action stations. But the well is far deeper.

In this year-end roundup, we bring you six restaurant concepts and formats that crept onto our radar in 2015—and that noncommercial operators in all segments will want to scout for stealable ideas.

1. Mini restaurants

Denny’s, Starbucks and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit are just a few of the restaurant chains that downsized their footprints this year, making way for faster, smaller formats designed to service online orders and move customers through the line and out the door even faster.

2. Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room

This coffeehouse-slash-commissary-slash-museum is a cafe hopped up on caffeine. The experiential concept in Seattle, which serves Starbucks’ full menu, is essentially a commissary, where beans are roasted in-house and in front of guests to be packaged and shipped to other Starbucks stores or directly to consumers. What should appeal to noncommercial operators—especially in C&U—is the educational component. In addition to coffee roasting on display, there are lounge areas for sampling and a coffee library. With beer breweries popping up on many campuses these days, could breweries of the coffee kind be the next wave?

3. Walk-up windows

The big-city restaurant scene was abuzz this year with established concepts cutting windows into the sides of their kitchens to sell something—usually one, easy-to-crank-out item—directly to passersby for an added revenue stream. Hearth in New York City has a separately branded window concept called Brodo that sells broth to go. Chicago barbecue spot Lillie’s Q peddles fried chicken out of its side window, LQ Chicken Shack.

4. Customizable pizza places

This year, three of the 10 fastest-growing small restaurant chains were fast-casual, customizable pizza concepts: Pieology, Blaze Pizza and MOD Pizza. The formats are largely the same (think: the Chipotle model applied to pies), but with fast casuals continuing to handily outpace traditional restaurants and pizza’s intergenerational appeal, it’s a proven example ripe for inspiration.

5. Food halls

Move over food courts, there a new, slightly fancier kid in town. Food halls are bringing together a mix of limited-service concepts, often chef driven and locally known, under one roof. Concentrated in big cities, recent examples include Atlanta’s Ponce City Market, housed in a historic old Sears factory that shares space with a number of corporate offices.

6. Beefsteak

Plant-focused plates are a mega-trend right now, and restaurants are doubling down on the idea, with well-known chefs launching veggie-centric fast casuals. At Jose Andres’ Beefsteak, customizable vegetable bowls are the stars, ranging between $7 and $8. There’s also a burger-like sandwich: This fall’s iteration had a thick slice of tomato as the main component, while the current offering is a marinated beet topped with onions, sprouts and chipotle mayo. With two locations—one of them at George Washington University—and a third at UPenn on the way, it’s a concept that draws crowds of health-minded students, plus nearby hospital visitors and office workers.

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