Judy Kneiszel

One to Watch: Tin Drum AsiaCafé

Tin Drum AsiaCafé is rooted in tradition, but focused on innovation.

Steven Chan, founder of Tin Drum, says the quick-serve Pan-Asian concept is named after the tin drummer, who in ancient cultures served as the local newscaster and wake-up caller. Each morning, he walked the streets banging a tin drum, beckoning people to gather at a café. He would report the news while they ate.

One to Watch: Bullritos

Bullritos is a quick-serve Tex-Mex concept created by Russell Ybarra, owner of two Houston-based full-service chains, Gringo’s Mexican Kitchen and Jimmy Changas.

The name was inspired by Ybarra’s experience running with the bulls through the streets of Pamplona, Spain. While dining at Bullritos is considerably safer than that annual event, the interactive ordering system and plethora of possible ingredient combinations when creating a burrito make it an adventure in its own right.

One to Watch: Zoës Kitchen

Zoës Kitchen started the way many mom and pop restaurants do. Zoë Cassimus made her grandmother’s chicken salad recipe for social gatherings, and family and friends told her she should open her own place. So she did.

It grew into an 18-restaurant chain before Cassimus sold it in 2007 to Brentwood Associates, a Los Angeles–based private equity firm. Since then, the number of Zoës Kitchen locations has more than tripled. Kevin Miles, president of the concept, says to expect 20–25 more stores to open in 2013.

One to Watch: Milio’s Sandwiches

Mike Liautaud, president and founder of Milio’s Sandwiches, says when it comes down to it, he and his sandwich competitors are all “just putting lunch meat on bread.” But something else helped grow his concept from a single sandwich shop near the University of Wisconsin campus in 1989 into a 47-unit chain with locations throughout the Midwest.

Liautaud says that while Jimmy John’s is focused on being “edgy and quick,” and Subway’s message is price driven, Milio’s was built on “legendary customer service and the quality of our product.”

One to Watch: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams

There’s been no lack of new faces and places on the frozen dessert landscape in the past 10 years, but with innovative flavors like Wildberry Lavender ice cream and Riesling Poached Pear sorbet, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams stands out in the crowd.

In 2000, Jeni Britton Bauer was studying art history at Ohio State University and considering career possibilities. She had worked in a French bakery through college and thought pastries might be her calling, so she practiced her skills at home.

One to Watch: Russo’s New York Pizzeria

When asked what makes Russo’s New York Pizzeria stand out from the competition, CEO Anthony Russo says without hesitation: “The right ingredients.”

“Our product is totally different because our sauce is made differently,” Russo says. “Other chains use prepared sauce. We make our own sauce, and to do that you have to use the good tomatoes, fresh garlic, fresh basil, and good olive oil so that when you cook the pizza, the flavors of the herbs in the sauce come out.”

One to Watch: Roti Mediterranean Grill

Appeasing the nation’s growing taste for Mediterranean and healthy-but-delicious meals, and doing so in a quick-serve format, has proved a winning combination for Roti Mediterranean Grill.

“We explored what was available around the country in this type of food,” says Bill Post, Roti cofounder and CEO. “We observed that most Middle Eastern restaurants had table service. So while the popularity of the Mediterranean diet had grown, it had not been popularized in quick service. So we saw a real window of opportunity.”

One to Watch: Yogurtland

Yogurtland offers dozens of frozen yogurt flavors, such as citrus varieties like Blackberry Lemon Mint Tart, Blood Orange Tart, and Key Lime Bar Tart, to diners who can’t seem to get enough of the fro-yo craze.

With 16 flavors and more than 30 toppings available at any given time, Yogurtland is “a yogurt buffet,” says Phillip Chang, founder and CEO of the concept.

“I wanted to have as many flavors as possible,” he says.

Chang got his start with Boba Loca, a bubble tea concept. He added self-serve frozen yogurt as an afterthought.

One to Watch: Fuzzy’s Taco Shop

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Not all of Fuzzy’s Taco Shop locations are near college campuses, but that’s how the chain got its start, and college towns are still a preferred destination for the purveyor of Baja Tacos and Jumbo Burritos.

“We offer generous portions at a fair price,” says Paul Rickels, vice president of franchise for Fuzzy’s Taco Shop. “It’s a value for the college student without a lot of discretionary funds, who finds fresh food very appealing. On top of that, we have ice-cold beer, which is also attractive.”

One to Watch: How Do You Roll?

Sushi concept How Do You Roll? is hitting its stride, growing to seven locations since opening in late 2008, with plans for 20 more stores in 2012.

“The first seven are all in Texas,” says cofounder and CEO Yuen Yung. “And we will soon be in California, Florida, and Arizona. We have six in the build-out stage, four in lease negotiations, and hopefully 10 more opening in 2012. From there our goal is to get to 100 by the end of 2016 in those markets and beyond.”