Fast casual powers on

It’s hard to believe it’s been three years since the inaugural 40/40 List graced the pages of QSR. It was a simple enough idea: Shine a spotlight on 40 up-and-coming but largely under-the-radar fast casuals with fewer than 40 units. That first report created a snowball effect, leading us to discover new concepts and  uncover trends that had yet to trickle down to the bigger—and arguably less nimble—brands.

READ MORE: Check out last year’s 40/40 List.

This year we enlisted you readers to help identify the best candidates. Your submissions were vital in compiling the list, and we were enlightened and humbled by such widespread participation.

The criteria for the 40/40 List remained largely the same: chef-driven menus, premium hospitality, a focus on experience rather than value, and ambitions beyond just growth and profit. But the brands themselves couldn’t be more different from one another in how they approach growth (slow and steady or fast and furious?), what specialties they offer (Pig Candy? Vegan sushi?), and what impact they aim to make on the communities they serve and the industry writ large. It’s that wide variety that best exemplifies what the 40/40 is all about: Innovative people and brands going to the beat of just one drum—their own.

Without further adieu, here are 40 brands under 40 units that are ready to make their mark on fast casual.

Image credits:Adam Larkey

Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh

HQ: Denver

Units: 28

Look where the puck is going. It’s a simple enough statement that belies a deeper philosophy guiding James Park, and by proxy, Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh. During a recent conversation with QSR, the chief executive never mentioned ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, to whom the quote is often attributed, but he did repeat those words in explaining why the Mediterranean category was about to boom and how Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh could lead the charge.

“People are going toward the plant-forward concepts,” Park says, noting that while chicken is the No. 1 protein at Garbanzo, falafel is not far behind. Other vegetarian foods like hummus are also becoming center of plate.

Mediterranean fare is also, Park says, a crowd pleaser in terms of carrier. “I’m really starting to see the shift in both categories and cost vehicles, where we’re seeing the shift from Mexican to Mediterranean and from the sandwich to the shawarma. And if you still love the handheld component, we satisfy that need,” he adds. “And if you’re a person who loves bowls, we have that as well.”

Park, who joined Garbanzo in 2015 and guided it through a rebrand, cut his teeth in the sandwich space working at brands like Penn Station East Coast Subs and Charleys Philly Steaks. And while he doesn’t see the sandwich space disappearing altogether, he maintains it has less white space compared with Mediterranean. And so far, no single brand has managed to own the space.

“By and large it’s been regional players. I think there’s going to be some level of consolidation. We’re seeing it happen now with Cava and Zoës merging together,” Park says. “In the next five years, you’re going to see the acceleration of growth and the adoption of the Mediterranean category.”

So how does Garbanzo catch the coattails of the Mediterranean movement while going toe to toe with the new Cava-Zoës behemoth? It starts with a commitment to quality—all dishes are made fresh in house—and not being confined to any one cuisine or style.

“I use the term ‘Med Eastern,’ so it’s not Middle Eastern and it’s not just Mediterranean,” Park says. “While we’re still called Mediterranean Fresh, we’re influenced by the Mediterranean, but we’re not bound by it.”

The second component is purposeful growth. Headquartered in Denver, more than half of Garbanzo’s units are in Colorado, but it has opened shop in several states eastward. The brand capitalizes on nontraditional growth for many of those newer markets with airport and campus locations.

“I’m witnessing our competitors growing opportunistically, but we are going to be focused on growing more strategically in key markets and expanding inside of those markets,” Park says. “We’re going to be an inch wide and a mile deep and make sure that we’re very strong in our category and that the unit economics are strong.”

To that end, Garbanzo is eyeing another five to six new markets over the next year. Ideally that would translate to 15–20 locations per year, but Park emphasizes that unit economics are paramount—and a better indicator of brand health than store count.

What’s more: Garbanzo’s future is now indirectly linked to another brand. Last July, Park bought a private equity stake in La Boulangerie, the San Francisco–based bakery that had been owned for a short time by Starbucks. At this point, Park says, it and Garbanzo are operating independently of each other, although he qualifies that as both grow they will benefit from shared supply chains and systems.

In the meantime, Park is keeping his eye trained just ahead of the puck. “It’s very interesting, when people ask me, ‘What is Mediterranean?’ or ‘What is Middle Eastern?’
It’s the food that’s been around the world the longest,” Park says. “You’re starting to see that shift. … Mediterranean and Middle Eastern is where it’s going to be.”

Image credits:Adam Larkey

Pork & Mindy’s

HQ: Chicago

Units: 6

What makes for a dynamite fast casual that’s also a lifestyle brand? For Chicago-based Pork & Mindy’s, it starts with a Food Network star and an irrepressible entrepreneur, both of whom have a keen enthusiasm for the arts. A partnership with Compass Group doesn’t hurt either. Jeff Mauro and Kevin Corsello launched the concept three years ago with an eye on expansion—and 2019 could be the brightest year for the brand to date with new store openings, more special events, and a grocerant deal to boot.

“We’ve been honing the operations, the menu, the supply chain, and logistics for the brand, so this is the time that we’re really ready to scale,” Corsello says. Various firms and angel investors approached the business partners, but they demurred, preferring to fund and grow organically. “Although those were very exciting times to get those knocks on the door, we really wanted to buckle down and make sure that we had all of our ducks in a row.”

Mauro’s star power imbued the fledgling brand with instant cachet, laying a foundation upon which to build its trio of values. Naturally food is one of the three; Mauro applies his “Sandwich King” sorcery to the menu, including showstoppers Bao to the Pork (pork shoulder with plum sauce, pickled daikon and carrot, and jalapeño relish) and Pig Candy B.L.T. (Sweet Heat Pig Candy bacon, lettuce, tomato, balsamic-caramelized onions, and dry-rub mayo).

The other two pillars of Pork & Mindy’s, music and art, continue to evolve and distinguish it from competitors. Last May, the brand announced a partnership with renowned DJ and record producer Paul Oakenfold, who just so happened to be an avid fan. Oakenfold is now an equity partner, as well as the official music curator.
Pork & Mindy’s has hosted back-of-house sessions with local musicians since the very beginning, and more special events—of both the musical and comedic persuasion—are on tap for 2019. Mauro himself even participates.

“For me it’s so great to have a safe-space venue where I can perform in a way that people really don’t see me that way. I’m on TV several times a week, but how often do you see me telling stories and singing songs?” Mauro says. “There’s plenty more of that to come as well as connecting with my standup past. So we’re planning some standup shows in 2019 as well at the restaurants,” Mauro says.

Pork & Mindy’s is still holding to its initial plan to radiate from its Midwest epicenter, but expansion will soon surpass its Chicago-Minneapolis-Denver range. Not only has the team solidified a deal to open a shop in São Paulo, Brazil, but there is also talk of a partnership with a grocery store, which would quickly catapult the brand into new markets.
The idea was a no-brainer for the cofounders after having witnessed the rise of grocerants in the greater Chicago area. So rather than view the emerging model as a threat, they are pursuing it as an opportunity.

“Jeff and I grew up on ’80s cartoons, and Yosemite Sam said if you can’t beat them, join them,” Corsello says.

Image credits:Pork & Mindy’s

Antique Taco

HQ: Chicago

Units: 3

For Rick and Ashley Ortiz, the restaurant business is a family affair. The husband-wife duo called on their respective expertise—Rick is a classically trained chef and Ashley a professional event planner—to create Antique Taco. The concept marries Midwest ingredients and flavors to Mexican cuisine, as exemplified by dishes like the Fried Chicken Burrito and Abuelita Poptart. The space is equally eclectic, dotted with antiques and knickknacks and a coziness akin to grandma’s kitchen. That flair goes a step further at The Guest Room, a private event space located above the Wicker Park location that hosts everything from wedding receptions and baby showers to birthdays and social mixers.

Image credits:Antique Taco

Snappy Salads 

HQ: Dallas

Units: 18

Compared with its trailblazing 40/40 peers, Snappy Salads is something of an old hand. Founded in 2006, the restaurant brought lighter, nutrient-dense dishes to Texas, a state where salad was often an accouterment to tacos and steaks. Throughout the years, Snappy Salads has also been at the forefront of the eco-friendly movement, keeping its operation green with biodegradable water bottles and paper straws, the latter of which was adopted in 2014—years before plastic-straw opposition gained steam. Now Snappy Salads is poised for big growth: Between June 2017 and May 2018, it opened 10 new restaurants and entered Austin and Houston for the first time.

Image credits:Snappy Salads

Seoul Taco

HQ: St. Louis

Units: 5

Like many a Recession-born concept, Seoul Taco began with a food truck and a lot of bootstrapping. Founder David Choi had all of $18,000 to his name when he launched the Korean-Mexican concept, winning Midwestern hearts first in Missouri and then Chicago. Choi plans to build out the pipeline but not at a breakneck pace. “This is not to say we will never be in other markets—that’s definitely a long-term goal of mine,” he says. “I would rather take the slow-and-steady route versus taking a large cash grab or opening up 40 units just for the sake of growth.”

Image credits:Seoul Taco

Milk Bar

HQ: New York City

Units: 17

What started as a specialty bakery within David Chang’s beloved Momofuku has since spun off in its own brilliant trajectory. Christina Tosi’s playful approach to desserts—ice cream that tastes like cereal-steeped milk, cookies stuffed with potato chips and graham crackers—struck a chord with guests, leading to store openings in New York, D.C., Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Toronto. At the same time, Tosi is becoming more of a household name thanks to TV appearances, as well as three Milk Bar–centric cookbooks, the most recent of which, All About Cake, dropped last fall. It’s almost certain her concept’s success will follow.

Image credits:Milk Bar

Beyond Sushi

HQ: New York City

Units: 6

As much as Guy Vaknin saw the spike coming, it still wasn’t easy to hold it together. In the week after Beyond Sushi’s “Shark Tank” appearance last October, the vegan concept watched day-to-day sales explode 40 percent. The online ordering went a bit “cuckoo,” Vaknin says, as website business doubled and third-party delivery skyrocketed 70 percent.
Vaknin made sure his six restaurants were properly staffed and stocked up on product. He even assigned a team to watch over the website in case it crashed.

But unlike many “Shark Tank” pitches, especially those on the product side, Vaknin says, the short-term upsurge wasn’t the long-term plan. He walked through the doors of ABC’s iconic series hoping to strike a partnership that wouldn’t just grow the six-unit concept in its home base of New York City, but would also help it scale across the country with a potentially huge California footprint.

And Vaknin knew he was pitching to the perfect Shark. New to the show’s 10th season, Miami Dolphins vice chairman Matt Higgins, also of private investment firm RSE Ventures, holds stakes in surging restaurant concepts like &pizza, David Chang’s Momofuku empire, and Bluestone Lane.

Higgins, who sees more than 100 deals come across his desk each month, according to Forbes, didn’t tip his hand too quickly, though. Vaknin came in asking for $1.5 million for 25 percent of Beyond Sushi’s upcoming West Coast venture and 5 percent of its established East Coast restaurants.

After drilling Vaknin on everything from profit level to mission statement, Higgins stood firm at $1.5 million in exchange for 30 percent of the West Coast business and 15 percent of East Coast. Additionally, inventor and entrepreneur Lori Greiner joined the deal. Vaknin accepted the offer after trying to counter at 12 percent.

“Of course I was blown away by the food itself. Any non-vegan I know who has tried Beyond Sushi became a fan at the first bite,” Higgins says via email. “But what really got me to invest was Chef Guy himself. He works incredibly hard and has limitless passion.”

Beyond Sushi was the first vegan restaurant to ever pitch on “Shark Tank.” Vaknin founded the chain, which specializes in vegan sushi, wraps, dumplings, and noodle bowls, in 2012 with $70,000 he had in life savings. The first store featured 12 seats, a counter, one employee, and was pushing $1 million out of a 280-square-foot box. The chain now runs about $2 million average-unit volume from its larger 2,500-square-foot models, which also feature table service. There’s also a 108-square-foot spot that does $600,000.

Beyond Sushi is a commissary-based business—a model that offers Vaknin flexibility to remain agile in the real estate gauntlet that is New York City, and to meet grab-and-go demand as off-premises booms. The chain wants to add another four NYC stores by 2020, and Vaknin says there’s infrastructure to open 25, no problem. After that, he says, it’s copy and paste as the health-forward chain moves into Los Angeles.

Image credits:Beyond Sushi

Dillas Quesadillas

HQ: Dallas

Units: 4

In a border state like Dallas, it can be hard to differentiate a Mexican-focused restaurant from the pack, but Dillas Quesdadillas founder Kyle Gordon did that—with a little help from Napoleon Dynamite. Pronounced “dill-uhs” in reference to a line from the cult classic, Dillas puts a decidedly American twist on quesadillas with nontraditional ingredients like blue cheese, brisket, bacon, and buttermilk ranch. Next up the brand has a joint venture to open 10 more units in East Texas and Louisiana, with a goal of hitting 35 stores by 2025.

Image credits:Dillas Quesadillas

Spoleto Italian Kitchen

HQ: Orlando (U.S.)

Units: 6

Spoleto may only number six shops stateside (all in Florida save one SoCal outpost), but it’s already a formidable international player with more than 400 locations in Brazil, Mexico, and Costa Rica. The menu fits in more with casual dining, with antipasti boards, soups, salads, pastas, and artisan sandwiches, but the concept’s build-your-own, customizable options champion its limited-service format. With few players in the fast-casual Italian space, Spoleto has plenty of runway ahead beyond Latin America.

Image credits:Spoleto Italian Kitchen

Maria Empanada

HQ: Denver

Units: 4

Expat Lorena Cantarovici found no shortage of tacos in Denver, but empanadas were another matter. A staple in her home country of Argentina, the Latin American turnover was virtually nonexistent in the U.S., so when friends and neighbors lauded her homemade empanadas, she knew she was onto something—and investors agreed. The brand received $3.5 million in capital from the Colorado Impact Fund. Six years in, Maria Empanada churns out some 70,000 empanadas monthly across its four units, with that output expected to triple in mid-March when it opens an industrialized kitchen.

Image credits:Maria Empanada

Go! Go! Curry

HQ: New York City

Units: 7

Unlike Thai and Indian varieties, Japanese curry is still a large unknown in the U.S., leading Tomoko Omori to make introductions. The signature dish of Go! Go! Curry features Pork Katsu (deep-fried pork cutlets) atop short-grain rice with shredded cabbage and a thick curry sauce. The name itself also has special meaning: “Go” is the pronunciation for the number five in Japanese, and “55” happens to be the jersey number of baseball legend Hideki Matsui, who hails from the region where this style of curry originated. True to that lucky number, Go! Go! Curry aims to have 55 units by 2022.

Image credits:Go! Go! Curry

Small Cheval 

HQ: Chicago

Units: 5

Small Cheval wasn’t born out of desire so much as necessity. After its best-selling cheeseburger became an international phenomenon at the Chicago-based restaurant Au Cheval, the owners created a spinoff, Small Cheval, to cater to the cheeseburger craze in 2015. And small it is: The restaurant’s menu consists of just a hamburger, cheeseburger (with bacon, if guests are feeling adventurous), and Golden Fries, plus milkshakes and a variety of adult beverages. Living up to its name, the classic cheeseburger has been downsized a bit but uses the same recipe as the original. With five units all clustered in downtown Chicago, the brand is also keeping its store count small for the time being.

Image credits:Small Cheval


HQ: Pittsburgh

Units: 5

Despite dreaming of opening an Indian fast casual for more than a decade, co-CEOs Raji Sankar and Randhir Sethi waited until 2014, when the Midwest market was finally primed for foreign flavors, to debut their first Choolaah in Cleveland, Ohio. Five years later, the concept still centers around its open kitchen with tandoor ovens, allowing guests to see their customizable dishes like Lamb BBQ and Paneer Wraps. Choolaah’s 2019 growth will focus on opening additional units within its existing markets of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. The brand will also expand its Choolaah Gives program, which supports local non-profits.

Image credits:Choolaah

Salad and Go 

HQ: Gilbert, AZ

Units: 14

When Roushan Christofellis and her husband, Tony, couldn’t find healthy, high-quality food that was both fast and affordable, they recruited Chef Daniel Patino to create a lineup of good-for-you-and-your-wallet salads served via the drive thru. The result was a concept with a micro-footprint—the original location is only 656 square feet—to keep prices low and costs manageable. Salads are just shy of $5.75, with protein add-ons ranging from chicken and tofu for $1.44 to steak and shrimp for around $2.50. It offers classic and specialty salads, as well as smoothies, seasonal soups, and a full breakfast lineup, which includes burritos, tacos, bowls, and more.

Image credits:Salad and Go

Salsa Fresca 

HQ: Danbury, CT

Units: 10

It may have taken 10 years to open as many units, but Salsa Fresca plans to grow its footprint tenfold over the next half decade, thanks to a new franchise program that launched last year. With units scattered across the Northeast (and a food truck, to boot), the concept serves San Diego–style burritos and “fresh food you can trust.” Salsa Fresca also holds sustainability near to its heart, opting for compostable utensils, serving dishes, and straws, as well as eco-friendly building materials and energy-efficient lighting. Even its cooking oil is recycled into bio-diesel fuel.

Image credits:Salsa Fresca

Glaze Teriyaki 

HQ: New York City

Units: 8

Since debuting in Manhattan in 2011, Glaze Teriyaki has taken its elevated teriyaki concept on the road, opening in cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and Madison, Wisconsin. Serving Seattle-style teriyaki and other Japanese-influenced fare, Glaze has earned a following with its many make-your-own bowls and two varieties of sustainable salmon: Faroe Island and Ora King Salmon, the latter of which is used by many Michelin-star restaurants. Both arrive fresh each morning. With plans to double its store count by the end of 2020, Glaze is focused on expansion in every sense of the word. Last July, it relocated the original unit to a new address across the street, tripling its square footage and serving twice the number of customers.

Image credits:Glaze Teriyaki

Hat Creek Burger Company

HQ: Austin, Texas

Units: 15

After earning its stripes as a food truck, Hat Creek opened its first freestanding unit in 2009. Since then, the company has grown to 15 units, with plans to reach nearly 30 by year-end—all within the state of Texas. With three children of his own, founder and Zaxby’s franchisee Drew Gressett envisioned Hat Creek as more than just a destination for food; he also saw it as a family-friendly haven for parents of young children. That’s why every Hat Creek is outfitted with a play yard and patio, where kids can burn off energy while mom and dad chow down on burgers and a beer.

Image credits:Hat Creek Burger Company


HQ: Salt Lake City

Units: 18

What it lacks for in food, Utah-based Swig makes up for in beverages. With 18 units under its belt—and 10–12 planned for 2019—the concept is known for a range of nostalgic specialty sodas, plus sweet treats like cookies and scones. The majority of Swig’s drinks center around big-name sodas (Coke, Mountain Dew, Dr Pepper, etc.), with add-ins like fresh fruit, creams, and flavorings that range from Cranberry and Peach to Mango Puree and Pomegranate. The best-selling Raspberry Dream features Dr Pepper, raspberry flavoring, and coconut cream, while its Boba sodas come in flavors such as Thai Coconut and Piña Colada.

Image credits:Swig

Veggie Grill

HQ: Santa Monica, California

Units: 31

Although just 8 percent of U.S. diners categorize themselves as vegetarians or vegans (according to a 2018 Gallup poll), there’s no denying that Americans’ demand for veggie-focused foods is growing rapidly. And California-based Veggie Grill is getting a slice of that pie.
Born in 2007 out of the founders’ desire to offer healthy, delicious, and innovative plant-based food, the concept has grown to 31 units across California and Chicago, with plans to open up to 10 additional stores this year by breaking into the New York and Boston markets.

“When our founders opened the first Veggie Grill 11 years ago, there weren’t a lot of mainstream vegetarian restaurants,” says CEO Steve Heeley. “A lot of them were mom and pops, and they were serving what was—at the time—people’s paradigm of vegetarian food: steamed broccoli and brown rice and a bunch of greens.”
But that type of menu doesn’t cut it at Veggie Grill. Instead, the brand has earned a reputation for some of the most envelope-pushing creations in the vegetable-forward world. The broccoli of yore may be on the menu, but it takes a backseat to flashier items like a range of Beyond Burgers—the plant-based burger that cooks, feels, and tastes like ground beef—chicken-less buffalo wings, hearty flatbreads, and more.

Every item at Veggie Grill is made without meat, dairy, eggs, or other animal products, and can meet a host of dietary restrictions or requirements, be it gluten-, dairy-, soy-, or nut-free diets.
When dreaming up new menu items, Heeley says, the R&D team often works backward, determining what foods and flavors customers want to eat—be it crab cakes, penne Bolognese, spicy fried chicken, or something else entirely—then engineering those items to be plant-based. New menu items take anywhere from six months to two years to bring to market, with the team working on 15–20 creations at any given time.

Veggie Grill is also mindful of its impact on the environment; that’s why all of its packaging is compostable, with fully recyclable plateware.

Both its food and eco-friendly philosophy have made Veggie Grill a haven for health-conscious diners, particularly those wholly plant-based eaters who have few other options. “For them, we’re basically their kitchen,” Heeley says. The menu variety ensures even those regulars don’t become bored, he adds. But for the first-time visitor, Heeley admits that the concept can be somewhat intimidating. That’s why employees are trained to hold guests’ hands throughout the experience. “It’s really important to us that our team members are welcoming and that we help guests make good decisions so they start their journey with our brand on the right foot,” he adds.

As it expands its footprint in pockets across the nation—Heeley’s goal is to grow 25–35 percent annually over the next handful of years—Veggie Grill aims to continue carving out a place in the new vegetable-forward niche. “A lot of the restaurant business is iterative; it’s a spin on what’s come before,” Heeley says. “But this category of craveable, innovative, plant-based food is a whole new category. The fact that there’s more to Veggie Grill than just a transaction is really what makes us unique.”

Image credits:Veggie Grill

Bon Me

HQ: Boston

Units: 18

Starting off as a lone food truck in 2011, Bon Me has since grown to 10 mobile units and eight restaurants in the greater Boston area. The Asian-inspired concept puts its own spin on classic Southeast Asian dishes, particularly its original sandwich, The Namesake, which is a reimagined take on the classic Vietnamese banh mi. Dedicated to making a difference for its community and employees, Bon Me is part of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center—which provides social services to Asian-American and Asian immigrant families—as well as the Boston Women’s Workforce Council.

Image credits:Bon Me

Bibigo Fresh Korean Kitchen

HQ: Los Angeles

Units: 8

Riding the global flavors trend that has swept the U.S. the last couple of years, Bibigo offers healthy and fresh Korean bibimbap bowls. The brand—which grew out of a successful Korean packaged foods business—has expanded its model from mall locations to brick-and-mortar units and continues to innovate and grow. This year, Bibigo is enhancing its brand image with a new prototype rolling out in 2019 that includes an updated menu and improved dining experience.

Image credits:Bibigo

Just Salad 

HQ: New York City

Units: 36

Despite its name, New York–based Just Salad is more than just, well, salad. Since launch in 2006, the brand’s health-conscious menu has grown to feature everything from wraps and grain bowls to soups, smoothies, and toast boxes (a variety of avocado and hummus toasts served atop a bed of greens). Just Salad prides itself on its 10 Items Under $10 menu, as well as its reusable bowl initiative, which allows the brand to eliminate more than 75,000 pounds of plastic from landfills each year. It will also launch a company-wide composting program in 2019.

Image credits:Just Salad

Hot Table

HQ: Springfield, Massachusetts

Units: 7

Paninis are the focus for this New England brand. What started in 2007 as a coffee shop that served a few sandwiches has transformed into an exclusive panini specialty. Customers order items like Steak & Cheese, Buffalo Chicken, and Mediterranean Veggie made with fresh, house-prepared ingredients from a menu priced by bread size alone—there’s no extra charge for premium toppings. John DeVoie, Hot Table president, says there are no plans to franchise at the moment, but rather to build the brand locally in New England, one store at a time.

Image credits:Hot Table

SAJJ Mediterranean  

HQ: Belmont, California

Units: 9

From a single food truck and brick-and-mortar store in 2012, SAJJ has grown to 11 units across California. On top of guest customization, SAJJ prides itself on innovative menu items like the Chocolate Hummus that comes with cinnamon chips and the Impossible Kabob made with wheat and potato proteins. The goal, says CEO Zaid Ayoub, is to get the brand to 20 units by 2020, with hopes to expand outside California in the near future. Ultimately, he sees SAJJ some day hitting a few hundred locations in the U.S. and internationally.

Image credits:SAJJ Mediterranean


HQ: Atlanta

Units: 32

Cinnaholic is the edgy vegan answer to Cinnabon. The brand was cofounded by husband-and-wife team Florian and Shannon Michelle Radke in San Francisco in 2010. In a space that looks more like a tattoo shop than a traditional bakery, guests choose a customizable treat from more than 30 frostings like marshmallow and chai and 20 toppings like cookie dough and pretzels.

“From the get-go, we didn’t want to start a bakery with sparkles and pink ribbons,” Florian Radke says. “We wanted to stand out.”
After testing the Bay Area market by catering events with a selection of vegan baked goods like cupcakes, cookies, and cinnamon rolls, one pastry was the clear winner in the Radkes’ eyes. They decided to focus their efforts on this single cinnamon treat.

“I think cinnamon rolls are very underserved in the market,” Radke says. The pastry deserves attention comparable to what cupcakes had a few years ago and doughnuts are having now, he adds. And, after appearing on “Shark Tank” in 2014 and growing the business to 35 units—plus another 150 in development across the U.S. and Canada—he’s seeing that wave of attention beginning, especially with other bakeries adding the treat to their repertoires.

Radke’s goal, however, is to be at the top of this cinnamon roll wave. His background is rooted in startup companies, and he is growing Cinnaholic as such. “We treat Cinnaholic like a startup: Grow fast, make mistakes, figure things out, and just have a really good, energized team who is willing to push this forward aggressively,” he says.

The way Radke sees it, Cinnaholic introduced this profitable idea to the market, but that doesn’t mean the brand owns the space. A competitor could, arguably, beat Cinnaholic to the punch, and for this reason, it has to move fast. “If we turn down too many people who want to buy a franchise from us, then they either go somewhere else or just open up something similar themselves,” he says.

He wants to offer that franchise opportunity to everyone who is interested, but understands finding the right partners is a huge factor in the brand’s ability to succeed. “We select our franchise partners very carefully to make sure they fit into our Cinnaholic family,” he says. That doesn’t mean they need to be vegan—most partners aren’t, Radke says—but it does mean they need to have passion for what the brand does.

And, just as Cinnabon owned the mall space, Cinnaholic is looking to the new mall—cool outdoor shopping centers—to set up its shops, which are on average 1,000 square feet. “It’s where people go who don’t want the mall vibe,” he says. “They want something more boutique, and they are willing to spend a little more money on that.”

Image credits:Cinnaholic

Artichoke Basille’s Pizza 

HQ: New York City

Units: 12

Artichoke serves authentic, thick-crust New York slices and pies piled high with unique flavor combinations, like the signature Artichoke slice with artichoke hearts, spinach, cream sauce, and cheese, or the Crab slice with crab sauce, mozzarella, and surimi stuffing. The brand caters to the lunch and dinner crowds, but late night is a huge seller, too. Since opening in 2008, the brand has grown to 12 units across the U.S., with strategic growth planned for major markets in years to come. “Long term, we’d love to see an Artichoke everywhere in the world,” says cofounder and co-owner Francis Garcia.

Image credits:Artichoke Basille’s Pizza

Afters Ice Cream

HQ: Huntington Beach, California

Units: 26

Afters is more than just ice cream; it’s a lifestyle. The Instagram-worthy dessert brand revolves around providing customers with a modern ambiance, unparalleled lifestyle-oriented experience, and innovative ice cream, says Scott Nghiem, CEO. With only five years of operation under its belt, the brand has already integrated a strong merchandise program into its business, focusing on a boutique-style design and millennial-driven marketing. In the coming years, Afters plans to grow in locations and retail, leaning on its social media savvy to realize that goal.

Image credits:Afters Ice Cream

Sessions West Coast Deli

HQ: Newport Beach, California

Units: 3

With a minimum of two more units set to open in 2019 and five more in 2020, Sessions is excited to share its flavor-forward sandwiches with more guests. Standouts include the Beef sandwich with flank steak marinated for 24 hours in bourbon, ginger, and Worcestershire, and the Gangnam Style meatball sandwich with a Kochujang Marinara and pickled vegetables. “Sessions is a brand that is attractive to the active lifestyle, and this is represented on our menu,” says Max Schlutz, executive chef and partner. “I substitute fat with bold flavors and heat.” The brand also plans to enter the retail business by offering sauces, dressings, and syrups in groceries soon.

Image credits:Sessions West Coast Deli

Biscuit Head

HQ: Asheville, North Carolina

Units: 4

When the concept opened six years ago, it was innovative simply to be a quick-service restaurant exclusively selling breakfast, says co-owner Carolyn Roy. “It was not something many people had experienced. We really had to teach our customers what to do when they came in,” she says. Having its headquarters in the high-traffic tourist town of Asheville, North Carolina, certainly helped introduce the brand to a large customer base of visitors from all over the country, even when it was just starting. And with the plan to grow organically (self funded) for now, that tourist fame continues to work in the brand’s favor.

Image credits:Biscuit Head


HQ: Las Vegas

Units: 7

Unafraid of change or the work it takes to continually improve its menu and service, SkinnyFATS is determined to own both the indulgent and healthy categories by splitting its menu in two—a Healthy side and a Happy side. This year is projected to be one of spinoffs for the brand, as it opens a food hall in Salt Lake City that will have sister concepts ranging from waffles to ramen to hot chicken. The brand’s aspiration is to have a SkinnyFATS in every state by 2022.

Image credits:SkinnyFATS


HQ: Berwyn, Illinois

Units: 25

When the original Buona Beef opened in 1981, the words “all-natural” and “fast casual” had no value in the quick-service industry. Yet Buona’s founders Joe Buonavolanto Sr. and his wife, Peggy, focused on creating a counter-service restaurant with a comfortable atmosphere where guests could bring the family and enjoy an all-natural, authentic, Italian beef sandwich. Almost four decades later, the second-generation, family-owned restaurant is continuing to do just that. In the last five years, it has opened 10 new stores in Illinois and Indiana. Buona also claims hometown cred: It is the official Italian Beef of the Chicago Cubs and White So

Image credits:Buona


HQ: Wall, New Jersey

Units: 26

When Paul Altero created a mock business plan for a class assignment in 1995, made-to-order burritos had not yet become a dining zeitgeist. Little did Altero know this dream would become a reality a little over a decade later. Altero, along with Bill Hart, left Johnny Rockets in 2008 to open the first Bubbakoo’s Burritos on the Jersey Shore. Today the chain boasts more than two-dozen locations, including some nontraditional units in casinos and a music venue. With a new focus on franchising, Bubbakoo’s is looking to add 15 to its pipeline this year and reach 200 before 2024.

Image credits:Bubbakoo’s


HQ: Carlsbad, California

Units: 17

If ever a brand could be described as one that “hit the ground running,” it would surely be Everbowl. In less than three years, the craft superfood chain has planted its flag with 17 units while producing an average of 60,000 bowls each month. That’s an impressive enough feat even before considering the glut of health-forward bowl concepts in Southern California. The menu encourages guests to “unevolve” their newfangled perceptions of what constitutes health and instead stick with wholesome ingredients, including superfoods like pitaya and acerola. Everbowl will continue to grow the pipeline on its home turf while also pursuing opportunities in Arizona and beyond.

Image credits:Everbowl

Wow Bao

HQ: Chicago

Units: 11

An early adopter of tech, Wow Bao continues to increase the convenience and affordibility of its offerings. Last year, the dumpling fast casual debuted a new automated store prototype that lets guests order on a kiosk and pick up food in a cubby. The brand focuses on keeping the footprint of each restaurant small (between 300 and 1,800 square feet), allowing it to open in a variety of spaces, including airports. Wow Bao’s growth plans will focus on Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C., with a goal of seven more units by year-end.

Image credits:Wow Bao

Little Greek

HQ: Tampa, Florida

Units: 40

Just barely sliding under the unit-count max, Little Greek is on an aggressive path to growth and will almost certainly graduate from the 40/40 qualifications by mid-year. Much of the chain’s success in opening stores as far west as Texas and as far north as Chicago is attributed to president Nick Vojnovic. In his roughly seven years with the brand, Vojnovic has built it up from the original four locations, thanks to a streamlined franchising program that still maintains the high quality standards upon which Little Greek was founded.

Image credits:Little Greek

The Hummus & Pita Co.

HQ: New York City

Units: 7

The Mediterranean fast casual is about to embark on a foundational year. Founded in 2011 by Janice Axelrod, Hummus & Pita Co. already has its sights set on triple-digit unit count. It opened its first New Jersey location last November and signed a five-location deal in Michigan. Up next are Colorado, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and California. On the culinary side, the brand made menu waves this past year for its Dessert Hummus and Hummus Shake—true to its commitment to serve “Americanized Mediterranean” that doesn’t box the concept into a single region.

Image credits:The Hummus & Pita Co.

Original ChopShop

HQ: Plano, Texas

Units: 12

Original ChopShop started in Old Town Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2013, with a focus on dietary-friendly eating and giving back. The neighborhood eatery, which generated sales of $15 million in 2017, donated more than $15,000 to children’s hospitals in Phoenix and Dallas last year. The near-term plan is to add two more Dallas stores and another in Phoenix. Fresh markets on deck include Atlanta, Houston, and Charlotte, North Carolina. ChopShop’s menu is heavy on customization with options like protein bowls, handcrafted salads, sandwiches, and superfruit bowls.

Image credits:Original ChopShop


HQ: Los Angeles

Units: 4

Rather than fight the c-store sweep, California-based Locali is embracing some of the more convenient aspects of that model while serving all-day breakfast, salads, sandwiches, quinoa bowls, smoothies, and more. Locations resemble an upscale bodega with grab-and-go meals and snacks plus an open kitchen and a dozen or so tables upfront. Its system also includes one diminutive, food-only shop, Localita and the Badasserie. In 2017, the brand teamed up with development firm Fransmart, and last year it signed a multi-unit deal for Miami, with the first store opening soon.

Image credits:Locali

Urban Bricks 

HQ: San Antonio

Units: 17

Less than four years after veteran franchisee Sammy Aldeeb opened the first Urban Bricks in San Antonio, the build-your-own pizza joint has big expansion plans. The brand has 47 planned units through master franchise agreements, which will bring the chain to new markets in Montana, North Carolina, and Kentucky. By late 2018, there were 10 restaurants under construction and 21 signed leases. Urban Bricks recently added pasta to its lineup of pizzas, paninis, and salads. Stores adapt to their surroundings; family-oriented spots include kids’ play areas, while the college restaurants have full bars.

Image credits:Urban Bricks

Hattie B’s Hot Chicken

HQ: Nashville, Tennessee

Units: 7

By gravitating toward unique buildings, the team at Hattie B’s is building a brand on history. Even its most revered dish, the Nashville hot chicken, has a storied past and, the team hopes, a bright future. “Good, old-fashioned Southern food is the heart and soul of our menu, but we are also not afraid to embrace technology to enhance the guest experience,” says Nick Bishop Sr., cofounder and co-owner. The plan is to open two to three restaurants per year, but the sky is the limit for long-term growth. At the same time, the team strives to continue offering employees competitive benefits, tip sharing, and paid time off, as well as, hopefully, childcare benefits in the future.

Image credits:Hattie B’s
Emerging Concepts, QSR Slideshow