From taquitos to dumplings to vegan versions of American fast-food classics, a growing number of fast-casual and quick-service concepts are turning to atypical menu items to entice customers and franchisees alike.

California-based Roll-Em-Up Taquitos is one example. The brand has five stores, all based in Southern California, but since opening up for franchising roughly a year ago, has added 480 new franchise units to its development schedule.

Chris Wyland, chief development officer, says the sky’s the limit for Roll-Em-Up, partially due to the unique niche the concept occupies.

“We have this saying, that everyone else in the country is fighting over chicken sandwiches, cheeseburgers and pizza, and we’re in this category by ourselves,” Wyland says. “As of today, we’re still the only taquito-focused multi-unit brand in the world so we’re in this little market niche by ourselves.”

While Roll-Em-Up is currently focused on franchising stores in the western part of the U.S., Wyland says there’s been a ton of interest from franchisees from across the country.

“I think it’s just that the public wants something different,” Wyland adds. “I think we just need more unique items out there that are readily available, and with franchising, the whole key is being able to replicate your brand or menu throughout the country in different markets.”

New York City restaurateur Stratis Morfogen similarly has seen ample interest from franchisees in Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, which opened its flagship store in May 2021.

It’s a fast-growing quick-serve that opened six new franchise stores in August alone, and is on track to open 10 more in 2022, and at potentially at least one shop a week by 2023, Morfogen says.

“We’re the only one in our lane,” he says. “And what we’ve done, we’re basically redefining or re-imagining two lanes into one. We’re re-imagining the sandwich and we’re re-imagining the dumpling.”

Brooklyn Dumpling Shop boasts all sorts of flavors wrapped up in an appealing, easy-to-eat package with classic sandwich flavors, like buffalo chicken, reuben, and a bacon, egg and cheese “cro’sumpling” (like a breakfast croissant).

“I believe the dumpling market could get as big as the sandwich market,” Morfogen says. “Who the hell doesn’t like a 2-ounce sandwich? And that’s what a dumpling is.”

Morfogen says the success of the concept shows consumers need to be “mentally and culinarily” stimulated with fresh new ideas, and notes customers—and franchisees—are especially interested in concepts that can do that with fusion-style cuisine.

But having a great, unique product is only part of the battle. Morfogen says franchisees are really looking for fully formed concepts that aren’t too expensive to open up, and have easy-to-prepare products, and dumplings fit that role perfectly. Low payroll costs help, too, especially in a time where restaurants are having trouble finding workers; Brooklyn Dumpling boasts an automat style of service that reduces the number of staff needed per location.

“You can open up a dumpling shop for $300,000 to $400,000, although it can be as low as $150,000 on the low end and you’re in business with a product with no assembly, no product waste, and no ingredients that come in non-frozen,” Morfogen says.

Wyland agrees that for franchisers in this space to be successful, they need consider marrying a unique product with a readymade business model.

In that vein, George Montagu-Brown, a chef and restaurateur, realized he had a winning concept in Nomoo, a Los Angeles-based quick serve featuring all-vegan versions of American fast-food staples. There’s a vegan smash burger, a vegan hot chicken sandwich, and, launching in November, a vegan take on Taco Bell’s famed Cheesy Gordita Crunch.

“What I’m really doing is taking the favorites, the best-selling items we all know and love from different fast-food restaurants, and recreating them, while keeping them quite close to the original in terms of flavor and texture,” Montagu-Brown says.

So far, the approach has garnered a lot of success, and devoted fans, since the concept opened in L.A. in 2020. Plus, he says, fandom has also stirred interest from potential franchisees. It also helps the plant-based food market is on track to be a $162 billion industry in the next decade, per a 2021 Bloomberg report.

But Montagu-Brown says he needed help moving the business toward a space where it could handle growth into franchising.

“I’m more of a chef,” Montagu-Brown explains. “I thought, ‘hey, let’s make the best plant-based concept, let’s change fast food by making all of the flavors that we know and love but vegan without the sacrifice,’ but, I’m not an expert in restaurant growth.”

That’s why Montagu-Brown was ready when Nomoo attracted the support of Fransmart, a leading franchise development firm. “We see Nomoo, honestly, as a 1,000-plus-unit concept,” he says. “We want this to be the plant-based quick-service restaurant right next to Chipotle, right next to everywhere else.”

Wyland, Montagu-Brown, and Morfogen all separately acknowledge unique menu items are key to generating excitement in a brand, excitement that can catch the attention of franchisees.

However, they also say franchisers can’t forget about several key basics that franchisees are all going to be looking for: Relatively low startup costs; a consistent, easy-to-prepare product that preferably requires minimal labor to prepare; and an easily scalable business model that has the infrastructure in place to help those franchisees succeed.

Above all else, though, potential franchisers need to remember they live and die by the whims of their customers.

“Listen to consumers,” Montagu-Brown says. “What do guests want? Don’t be afraid to pass out questionnaires. I’ve been that crazy entrepreneur a bunch of times. People love to talk and love to be involved, especially if they love the brand.”

Fast Casual, Franchising, Menu Innovations, Story, Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, NOMOO, Roll-Em-Up Taquitos