Every year Restaurant Business identifies the candidates in a signature report called The Future 50, a ranking by sales growth of small-to-medium-sized chains. Established chains use the list to see what sorts of innovators are gaining favor with consumers and what that says about the future direction of the restaurant business. But there’s no shortage of insights for noncommercial operators, too. This year’s batch of up-and-comers, for instance, abounds in concepts that focus on health, customization, sustainability and other issues that are top-of-mind for FSDs. Here are 10 of the 50 up-and-comers that seem to hold particular applicability for onsite foodservice (all 50 can be viewed here.)
Gaining popularity with its made-from-scratch dough, clean ingredients and 180-second service, the 3-year-old fast-casual pizza chain is flourishing. Blaze has over 60 locations in the pipeline for this year and strives for low operating costs with a Chipotle-style assembly line. It empowers guests to customize their pizza with over 35 fresh ingredients, including vegan cheese. The fire-inspired, industrial design of Blaze’s architecture is intended to appeal to millennials.
2. Nando’s Peri-Peri
A South African-based chain that specializes in a Portuguese style of chicken common to Morocco, Nando’s landed in the U.S. in 2008 but grew slowly in the years immediately afterward. Now it’s stepping up the pace, with Chicago being its most recent new market. In the last year, the chain more than doubled its sales by standing out with an authentic, ethnic flair, thanks to its liberal use of Portuguese peri-peri, a hot sauce made from bird’s-eye chiles. Nando’s touts fresh, never frozen chicken that marinates overnight in the preservative-free sauce, providing a spicy spin on comfort food.
Clean labels are the name of the game for this Queens, N.Y.-born chain. Its customizable burgers (including elk, bison and vegetarian versions), sandwiches and salads boast organic, antibiotic- and GMO-free ingredients. Interiors of the full-service restaurants are constructed of reclaimed materials. Bareburger avoids a preachy tone, however, describing its “Chief Bear,” a.k.a. CEO Euripides Pelekano, as enjoying “happy people, success stories and long walks on the beach.” The burger joint is expanding to 36 locations.
Billing itself as “the next-generation salad bar,” Salata (Latin for salad) differentiates itself with a simple menu, fresh ingredients, lean proteins and house-made, gluten-free dressings. With over 50 ingredients, the chain has ample room for seasonal fruits and vegetables. A variety of organic selections are also featured. The concept accommodates all sorts of dietary lifestyles with such specialties as baked tofu, falafel and quinoa. Founder Berge Simonian spent a year researching the formulas for Salata’s signature salad dressings.
5. Veggie Grill
Veggie Grill uses only plant-based ingredients on its menu, but the global flavors, seasonal ingredients and chef-inspired dishes are intended to appeal to meat eaters as well as vegetarians. In sync with the rise of the flexitarian diet and a call for reduced meat consumption, Veggie Grill has expanded to 26 units since 2007 and posted a compound annual growth rate of 43.1 percent for the last five years. This vegan restaurant tosses up more than just salads with plant-based “chicken,” sandwiches, faux cheeseburgers and analog crab cakes on the menu. The company’s goal is to double sales every 18 to 24 months in part by engaging health-conscious diners.
6. Hale & Hearty Soups
Since beginning in 1996, Hale & Hearty has positioned itself squarely in the healthy fast-casual space. After operating exclusively in New York state for almost a decade, a Boston location opened earlier this year. Hale & Hearty initially aimed for customers with unique, daily soups made from scratch with authentic ingredients. Now, soup, salad and sandwich bundles provide a convenience option during the lunch daypart. Recipes are changed often to keep the array different. Customers are encouraged to cite their favorite soups via social media, and are sent email notifications when a favorite returns to the menu.
7. Taziki’s Mediterranean Café
A trip to Greece began as a long-awaited getaway for founder Keith Richards (the entrepreneur, not the guitar player) and ended as a Mediterranean concept aiming to deliver both healthfulness and transparency. Though hailing from the fried-foods stronghold of the South, Taziki’s offers vegetarian options and updates of traditional Greek and Mediterranean dishes. The cafe promotes that commitment via social-media posts such as “No freezers, fryers, or microwaves.”
The health-focused fast-casual chain is aimed at the on-the-go foodie, with ingredients intended to provide energy as well as nutrients. The chain offers one, three and five-day juice-cleansing regimens and features salads, wraps, soups, and even burritos. All orders can be customized.
With consumers clamoring for more locally grown foods, Eureka! strives to respond with classic American dishes remade with natural ingredients sourced with low carbon miles. The full-service concept offers such specialties as bison burgers, panko-crusted onion rings, and corn dogs. The featured beers are locally brewed if possible, and entertainment is provided by local artists. Playlists of recorded music are house-curated from guests. The chain pledges, “Eureka! is as much of a restaurant as it is a lifestyle.”
10. Tokyo Joe’s
The fast-casual chain serves up classic Japanese and pan-Asian eats without MSG, greasy wok cooking or deep-frying. Despite the use of naturally grown protein and organic produce, Tokyo Joe’s says its prices fall within the fast-casual bracket. Bowls are customizable with gluten-free and vegetarian items and all sushi is made-to-order. The majority of Tokyo Joe’s locations are in Colorado but the chain plans to expand into Texas after last year’s push into Arizona.