Judy Kneiszel

Ones To Watch: Chicken Salad Chick

At Chicken Salad Chick, ordering a chicken salad sandwich for lunch isn’t as simple as it sounds. The Alabama-based fast-casual concept offers 15 varieties, which explains how chicken salad accounts for 96 percent of the chain’s sales. The ham, turkey, roast beef, and Pimiento cheese deli sandwiches are reserved for the rare Southerner who’s not a fan of the chicken-and-mayonnaise concoction.

Ones To Watch: Modmarket

In 2008, Anthony Pigliacampo and Rob McColgan were two young professionals looking for a place to have a healthy lunch on a regular basis. When they couldn’t find one, the pair decided to create one. They pooled their knowledge to create Modmarket.

“We felt very strongly that there needed to be better options for healthy eating,” Pigliacampo says. “We thought there should be more than Chipotle and Whole Foods.”

Ones To Watch: Fresh to Order

“Fast fine” is the way Fresh to Order founder and CEO Pierre Panos describes the Atlanta-based concept he created in 2006. “It’s nicer than fast casual, but not fine dining,” he says.

With a background in fine dining, Panos sought to offer a fresh, quality product to a mass market for around $10. He spent a year and a half working on the menu with Jesse Gideon, corporate chef and COO of Fresh to Order, to determine whether the idea of fast fine was possible.

Ones To Watch: Larkburger

If doing something on a lark means it’s adventurous or even daring, Larkburger is aptly named, say cofounders Thomas Salamunovich and Adam Baker.

The chef-driven burger concept was the first fast casual to open in the ski resort town of Vail, Colorado, they say, and it’s become a local icon now poised to grow beyond its home state. Salamunovich is the owner and culinary director of Vail’s fine-dining Larkspur Restaurant and Market, where he invented the Larkburger, the menu item that sparked his interest in the fast-casual burger business.

One to Watch: Slim Chickens

Slim Chickens has at least one thing in common with the likes of Apple, Google, and Nike: It can trace its roots to a garage. President and CEO Tom Gordon concocted the idea for the fast-casual chicken concept in CMO Greg Smart’s garage.

“We got the idea that no one was doing fresh chicken tenders in Northwest Arkansas, and we knew it was a great and growing area of the country,” Gordon says.

Ones To Watch: Tossed

Until Tossed’s creators brought chef-inspired salads to New York City in 1998, a fast-casual salad meant iceberg lettuce and a few hard tomato slices prepackaged in a clear plastic box and refrigerated. But at Tossed, salads are made fresh to order, and guests can design their own from a combination of lettuces, dozens of fresh toss-ins, and 15 different dressings.

Ones To Watch: The Melt

The humble grilled cheese sandwich takes center stage at a California-based fast-casual restaurant known as The Melt. And the gooey sandwiches go on tour, too, in four converted school buses that grilled-cheese aficionados can book for weddings, parties, and concerts, or follow to festivals and other public events.

Why all this fuss about bread and cheese? Because grilled cheese equals happiness, says Kerri Martin, vice president of marketing for The Melt.

Ones To Watch: PDQ

The letters in the name PDQ have two different meanings. First and foremost, they stand for “people dedicated to quality,” says PDQ principal Nick Reader. They also stand for “pretty darn quick,” as the concept is a fast casual that focuses on speedy delivery.

“Our people are what we pride ourselves on most,” says Reader, a former CFO for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who founded PDQ with Bob Basham, cofounder of Outback Steakhouse.

Ones To Watch: Tokyo Joe’s

While fast-casual giant Chipotle has grown to more than 1,000 locations in the past two decades, another fast-casual chain that also started in Denver around the same time has seen quieter growth.

Like Chipotle, the 29-unit Tokyo Joe’s serves natural meats and mostly organic veggies, focusing on health and freshness for the modern consumer.

Ones To Watch: Native Foods Café

The owners of the vegan fast-casual concept Native Foods Café decided if they could make it in Chicago—home of cheesy deep-dish pizza and Vienna beef hot dogs—they could make it anywhere.

Founded in Palm Springs, California, by a vegan chef in 1994, Native Foods Café grew into a four-store chain before Daniel Dolan and Andrea McGinty purchased it in 2009. In the next two years, two more locations were added.

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