I am often asked what I think are the hottest or best fast-casual concepts. I think it’s important to tackle that question from the consumer perspective first. Like many others in the industry, I love checking out the competition. Over the last several years, many colleagues and I have made a point to visit as many concepts as possible whenever we’re together. Out of these 50 or more concepts, here are the ones that stand out the most. This list is based entirely on the quality of the experience and not buzz in the press or industry. Of course, there are also some places, like Pizza Fusion, that I am dying to visit but have not had the chance to yet.

Cowboy Chicken

Located in Dallas, this wood-fired rotisserie-chicken chain has been around since 1981. I first ate there several years ago while on a trip to the area, and I was blown away. I practically sampled everything on the menu, and I loved it all. There’s nothing trendy there—just great chicken and down-home sides. Execution really is the key to everything in our business. Everyone at our table loved it, also. I now have Cowboy Chicken on my to-do list whenever I visit Dallas. Besides the chicken, don’t miss the great sides, including the creamed spinach, black-eyed peas, and fried okra.

Go Roma

I have long thought that there was a place for a really good fast-casual or quick-service Italian restaurant, but I have never really been very impressed. However, last year I finally got the chance to visit a Go Roma location in Chicago. In addition to really good pasta, they have pizza, soup, salads, and panini. Highly respected industry veterans David Wolfgram and Jeff Drake have done a great job with this concept. I have also heard very good things about the West Coast chain Pallino, and I hope to visit there soon.


Vapiano is also an Italian concept featuring pizzas, house made pastas, and salads. The food was quite good, but what really struck me was the décor and unique ordering system. In terms of atmosphere, Vapiano definitely looks and feels more like a fine-dining restaurant with a nice bar. When you enter the restaurants, they give you a card that you swipe at each food station or the bar. On the way out, you hand in your card and pay for your food and drinks. I have only visited the Dallas location, but I can see high-income young professionals flocking to these places. Vapiano is a really fun place to eat with a group sharing food and a good time.

Firehouse Subs

There is always at least one sub place on my rotation of places I eat regularly. Since they opened in my neighborhood, Firehouse Subs has replaced the other sub brands, and I am working my way through the menu. Subs would seem to be a pretty simple thing, but Firehouse just does them better. I generally visit them once every week to 10 days. The Sorensons, Don Fox (one of the smartest and nicest guys in our industry), and their team have done a great job with this rapidly expanding chain.

“Subs would seem to be a pretty simple thing, but Firehouse just does them better.”

Don’t forget …

The other places I frequent are probably a result of good locations and having to tote a toddler around with us most of the time. Near our house we have a great lifestyle center (The Hill Center) that has a Pei Wei and a Zoë’s Kitchen directly across from each other. Depending on the line and the kiddo’s mood, we hit one of these each week. With Pei Wei, I see no reason to go to the more expensive sister concept P.F.Chang’s. And everyone in my family is addicted to Zoë’s chicken quesadillas. Chipotle also gets some of our money, but local fast casuals Baja Burrito and its chain offshoot Blue Coast Burrito get more.

If you ever happen upon one of these six brands, go in and check it out. Tell ‘em George sent you.

Fast Casual, Story, Blue Coast Burrito, Chipotle, Cowboy Chicken, Firehouse Subs, Go Roma, Pei Wei, Pizza Fusion, Vapiano, Zoës Kitchen