Judy Kneiszel

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.

Ones To Watch: Planet Sub

At Planet Sub, guests are handed a playing card when they order and listen for that card to be called, indicating their food is ready. The sandwich shop’s real calling card, however, is bread made entirely from scratch on the premises.

“Every Planet Sub is also a bakery,” says cofounder and CEO Jeff Klusman. “There is a dough mixer in every location.”

Planet Sub traces its roots to 1979, when Yello Sub opened near the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.

Ones To Watch: Burger 21

Despite the research and years of experience that went into creating Burger 21, the concept’s president has been surprised by one aspect of the business: the brand’s broad consumer appeal.

“The amazing thing we didn’t predict was so many parties coming in with three generations,” says Mark Johnston, chief concept officer of Front Burner Brands and president of Burger 21. “Kids, parents, and grandparents all find something they love.”

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