The fast casual takeover
Last year, we had an epiphany: So much of the fast-casual innovation we kept raving about was flowing out of the same set of emerging brands that had only a handful of locations at best. Those young pups were forcing much larger brands to re-evaluate their own operations as the upstarts thrived in cities across the country. We chose to recognize those young brands much like other publications recognize young leaders: with a 40 Under 40 list, only in our case, qualifying entrants by locations rather than age.
We identified core criteria for what set those fast casual 2.0 chains apart: chef-driven menus, premium hospitality, a focus on experience rather than value, enhanced beverage programs, high-quality ingredients, ambitions other than growth and profit, a collaborative spirit, and commitment to long-term relationships with stakeholders. Last year’s curated 40/40 List was so successful that we’re bringing it back—and we’re taking it one step further. Rather than identify the same set of brands year after year until they crack the 40-unit ceiling—yawn—we figured that, just like those 40 Under 40 lists, we’d graduate the whole class and introduce you to a brand-new set of innovators.
When Shannon Allen opened the first Grown—a USDA-certified organic fast-food restaurant—in Miami in the summer of 2016, it was personal: One of her children with her husband, former NBA star Ray Allen, had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and there were no convenient, healthy food options available to the family, particularly in a drive thru. But a year and a half and five additional locations later, Shannon Allen says Grown’s mission is so much bigger than she could have imagined.
“What I didn’t realize is it’s not just about the busy mom,” she says. “There’s a whole host of people on this planet that feel disenfranchised by the kind of food being offered in drive-thru windows. There are people who are vegans and vegetarians and pescatarians and Celiacs and who have Hashimoto’s disease and who are battling cancer and who have kids battling peanut allergies that just don’t eat out anymore. We really have become a safe haven for those folks.”
Grown’s menu is, as its mission states, “real food, cooked slow for fast people.” It’s 100 percent organic, using fresh ingredients without GMOs, preservatives, hormones, or processed sugars. Everything on the menu can be made vegetarian or vegan upon request; the kids’ menu is completely gluten-free. That wholesome menu approach is catching on. Since Grown’s first location opened along a commercial strip in Miami, three locations have opened in Miami sports stadiums, another opened in an on-campus bookstore at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, and the latest opened in an Orlando-area Walmart.
Allen says nontraditional locations are going to be Grown’s sweet spot moving forward. “When I think about Grown, I think we really belong in captive-audience spaces—places like airports, hospital lobbies, college campuses, busy stretches of highway, sports arenas—places where people have been frustrated,” she says. While she initially conceived Grown’s expansion to remain corporate-owned so that she could better control its organic integrity, Allen says her long-term goal—a very-specific 9,400 locations worldwide—has led to a change of heart. The brand is launching a franchise program this year, with interested parties across the country already lining up.
“There are disciples out there who want a Grown or multiple Growns. They want to be a part of this mission,” she says. “If I want 9,400 locations in captive-audience locations all over the world, I can’t do it by myself.”
HQ: New York City
It’s not uncommon to find a celeb chef behind a hot new fast casual—but Ivy Leaguers? Founded by three Yale graduate students, Junzi Kitchen brings forth Northern Chinese staples like noodle bowls and bings (wraps) for the lunch crowd, while weekend visitors can lounge with specialty small plates and cocktails. The brand moved in on the Big Apple last summer and already has two additional locations in the works. Next up? Los Angeles.
HQ: San Francisco
Mixt has only expanded to 10 California locations in its first 12 years, but that slow growth is for good reason: Founders David and Leslie Silverglide, along with business partner and chef Andrew Swallow, have been working on perfecting the guest experience ever since they bought the company back from a private-equity group in 2012, and they spearheaded a significant brand refresh in 2016. Now the founders (who make up the parent company Good Food Guys) are content with the model, which includes an expanded dinner menu and enhanced beverage program, with options like craft beer, artisan wine, and a kombucha bar. The next step for the team is expanding Mixt beyond California.
HQ: New York City
Chef Tom Colicchio’s fast-casual concept has been around since 2003 and already struggled through growing pains, having downsized from nearly 20 to six locations. But after a face-lift in 2016 that featured bold new branding and an in-store design that harped on its fresh ingredients, the sandwich joint is ready to grow again, and is looking at the I-95 corridor (Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.) for potential expansion.
HQ: Scottsdale, Arizona
It doesn’t always take a restaurant mastermind to develop a successful multiunit concept. Just ask Keely Newman and Kelley Bird, two moms who started Grabbagreen out of their home kitchens in Arizona when they wanted to develop more wholesome food options for their kids. Grabbagreen’s healthy menu—featuring bowls, salads, juices, smoothies, and more—is designed around superfoods and unprocessed ingredients without preservatives, GMOs, or hormones.
“Everything is made in less than five minutes from raw to cooked,” Newman says. “A lot of our ingredients stay raw. … We steam our vegetables and our proteins. We don’t grill them, so they don’t have carcinogens.”
Newman says she’s connected with a legion of like-minded people who are passionate about clean and healthy eating. That’s helped fuel growth; even though the company just launched franchising in 2015, it’s averaging about two new locations opening per month and has development deals in place for dozens more. “I haven’t spent a marketing dollar in terms of franchise marketing,” Newman says.
“These are people who found us because people want healthy food, and investors and potential operators and potential franchisees want to do something that they’re passionate about.” That growth hasn’t been restricted to major urban markets like some other health-forward concepts. Grabbagreen has locations in places like Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Temple, Texas—towns that are “probably overlooked by a lot of our competitors,” Newman says, but where they’re nonetheless “dying for healthy foods.”
The challenge moving forward? Newman says 80 percent of consumers are scared of healthy foods, forcing Grabbagreen to either target a smaller audience or work hard to educate a broader one. “Our pie is really kind of small, and we have all these concepts out there vying for this rather small pie,” she says. “For us, our challenge is, how do we tap into that 80 percent who are really intimidated [and] scared?”
Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop
HQ: Los Angeles
When Jon Rollo launched Greenleaf in 2007, he wanted to create a restaurant where people could feel good about eating every day—a place with clean, healthy foods that are also familiar and delicious. That idea is now an eight-unit fast casual serving a far-ranging menu that includes salads and sandwiches, as well as pizzas, tacos, and plated entrées. Most Greenleaf locations also have indoor-outdoor patio seating, full bars, and on-site chef gardens from which team members can source ingredients for both food and cocktails.
Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill
HQ: Los Angeles
The term fast casual didn’t even exist back when Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill first opened its doors back in 1992. But a fast-casual experience, even if it didn’t have a name, was exactly what founder Steven Paperno created when he designed a concept that combined authentic Mexican recipes with fresh, natural, and organic ingredients. Since then, Sharky’s has grown to 28 locations in California, Nevada, and Oregon, through franchising.
HQ: Las Vegas
Debbie Roxarzade first made a name for herself as a restaurateur in Los Angeles, where she ran seven restaurants that served fresh food at affordable prices. After relocating to the Las Vegas area, Roxarzade launched Rachel’s Kitchen (named after her daughter) in 2006 with a menu featuring breakfast, salads, sandwiches, wraps, and juices, all of it using fresh and often locally sourced ingredients. Rachel’s Kitchen started franchising in 2010, and is now looking at the Phoenix area for its first growth outside of its home market.
Oath Craft Pizza
Having originated in Nantucket, Oath has since taken Boston by storm, opening six locations in and around the city. The fast casual secured a $7 million investment in 2017 and is plotting major expansion, which began with its first location in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Oath sets itself apart from the fast-casual pizza pack by sourcing sustainable and ethically sourced ingredients; it’s staked its claim as the first pizza chain to be granted certified humane approval. Crusts are hand-stretched, then grilled and seared in avocado oil for extra crispness.
Salt & Straw
HQ: Portland, Oregon
In addition to its legion of admirers who flock to the shop for its creative and downright eccentric flavors, Salt & Straw has made a believer out of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group; the famed restaurateur’s company invested in the concept this past May. Even so, cofounder Kim Malek and the brand plan to approach growth organically and focus on building a great team. Founded in 2011 by Malek and her cousin, Tyler, Salt & Straw is king when it comes to quirky; it’s featured flavors like blue cheese with pears, olive oil, and bone marrow. Salt & Straw crafts each 5-gallon batch by hand and adds all mix-ins during the process.
By now, descriptors like “farm to table” and “better burger” feel less fresh—almost plain worn-out. It’s almost expected that premium fast-casual chains should source from farm to table, while the number of better-burger chains has surpassed critical mass. But no concept walks the walk quite like Farm Burger, which, to this day, still brings a certain heft and legitimacy to the two terms. Nearly a decade ago, Jason Mann and George Frangos teamed up to create a local-minded restaurant, but unlike so many other concepts, this one would be built from the farmer’s point of view.
“Farmers are a shrewd bunch. They work hard and want to see the most return they can for their efforts,” Mann says. “Farm Burger really was an experiment in that, how does a farmer—aka me—develop a concept that is driven by the producers?”
Mann had worked as an organic farmer in California before moving to Athens, Georgia. A self-described entrepreneur, Mann quickly started a movement. He not only ran an agricultural facility at the University of Georgia, but he also opened full-service concept Farm 255 and founded an organic co-op farm to supply the restaurant. A restaurateur and veteran of the slow-food movement, Frangos had worked at D.C.’s first certified organic restaurant, Nora, as well as Savoy in New York City. Through this combined expertise, the cofounders set Farm Burger up as a trailblazer—and not just in terms of sourcing.
“We really were ahead of the curve on not just the sourcing side, but also on the fine-casual/fast-casual ticket,” Mann says. “We really brought a deep culinary sensibility to our menu and scratch cooking across the board.”
Indeed, the brand has stayed firmly connected to its agricultural roots by continuing to source local, antibiotic-free, ethically raised meats and by using the whole animal. Farm Burger puts equal care into its produce, with premium salad and vegetarian options. Today, Farm Burger numbers 10 brick-and-mortar locations across the Southeast, plus two California outposts. Last year the brand also opened its first nontraditional location in the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons. Mann says it is the only NFL stadium to boast local, 100 percent grass-fed burgers. Next up, the company will launch its own loyalty app and try to tackle the conundrum of keeping burgers and fries fresh throughout the delivery process. To fuel smart, sustainable growth, Farm Burger brought industry heavyweight Doug Pendergast, former Krystal and Quiznos CEO, onboard as president and COO. And while the brand isn’t one to toot its horn, Mann knows that bringing Farm Burger’s origin story into the spotlight will be key to its ultimate success.
“I urge customers and eaters to do the work; ask the questions from the people in the restaurant,” Mann says. “It’s mandatory that if you work at a Farm Burger, you visit the farms. It’s important for them to be able to tell the story of what Farm Burger stands for and its origin story.”
HQ: Columbus, Ohio
No, Ohio-style barbecue is not a thing. But that hasn’t stopped Columbus-based City Barbeque from building its empire out of the Buckeye State. To be fair, president and cofounder Rick Malir is from Kansas, lending the company some legit barbecue credentials. He’s helped grow the company to 35 locations in six states, leveraging house-smoked meats, scratch-made ingredients, and “backyard hospitality” to create an authentic barbecue experience. Eight more City Barbeque locations are slated to open in 2018.
HQ: San Diego
Better burgers are accessible across the U.S., but rarely to the Burger Lounge standards. The fast casual serves 100 percent grass-fed, American, small-farm beef, and finishes its burgers with a range of organic and house-made ingredients. Founder Dean Loring says the ethos of Burger Lounge is to keep things simple by sourcing “amazing ingredients” through strong partnerships. “That said, nothing works unless the guest leaves happier than when they arrive, right?” Loring says. “Simplicity is complicated. Nothing is ever as easy as it seems. Each day our goal is to be better than the day before, and that is what keeps it interesting.”
Piada Italian Street Food
HQ: Columbus, Ohio
If and when Italian fast casual takes off as one of the next big industry categories, we’ll all have Piada to thank for it. The fast casual that launched in 2010 and now has locations in seven states sports a chef-driven menu of piadas (an Italian version of a burrito), pastas, and salads, with guests able to choose from a half-dozen proteins, a dozen sauces and dressings, and more than 20 toppings in customizing their dish. In the fall, Piada launched a seasonal menu that leaned more on signature menu items, like with the Mediterranean Power Bowl and the Porchetta Sandwich, and the company will continue pushing in that direction.
Bobby’s Burger Palace
HQ: New York City
Most people know Bobby Flay as a Food Network chef personality or as the chef-owner of restaurants like Gato, Mesa Grill, and Bobby Flay Steak. But if Flay has his wish, people might soon know him for something far more accessible: burgers. Flay’s burger concept, which first opened in 2008, recently announced plans to franchise, starting with an upcoming location in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Now more customers will have access to high-quality burgers that can be “crunchified”—the Palace’s signature addition of potato chips to any burger.
Giardino Gourmet Salads
Ody and Kenny Lugo—a Miami-based teacher and firefighter, respectively—founded Giardino Gourmet Salads in 2004 as a way to rally their community around nutrient-dense foods. The brand offers a promise of “Nutritional Empowerment,” through which it provides 65 fresh and scratch-made ingredients for guests to build their own salad, grain bowl, or wraps based on their own individual needs. With its roots firmly planted in South Florida, Giardino is now spreading its influence to new markets through franchising, starting with the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee, areas.
HQ: San Francisco
Some brands are happy to flaunt the “fast casual” mantra, anxious to illustrate a higher positioning in the limited-service market. But Starbird isn’t one of them. The fried-chicken chain developed by chef consultancy The Culinary Edge gladly calls itself “fast food” as it seeks to redefine the food quality possible in a quick-service setting. Starbird leverages “super-premium” ingredients in its fried chicken–based sandwiches, wraps, salads, and breakfast. Meanwhile, it boasts a curbside-pickup system that lets guests order from their phone and alerts the restaurant when the customer has arrived so an employee can run the food out to them.
HQ: Golden, Colorado
For a brand that’s all about simplicity, MAD Greens has no shortage of irons in the fire. Based just outside Denver—arguably the cradle of fast casual—the company is exploring drive thru, rolling out mobile ordering, and pushing its catering program to scale. But juggling these different initiatives behind the scenes is what’s paving the way for a better, more streamlined experience for customers and team members. It’s also proof that MAD Greens has its eye on longevity. “We’ve been moving more toward a simplistic approach, not adding too much complexity to each restaurant,” says vice president of marketing Lucas Clarke.
“Being nimble is one of the things that we do best. Even though we plan things out, we can always make tweaks and changes.” Indeed, one such recent change was the removal of panini from the menu. It might sound like a minor adjustment, but the hot-pressed sandwiches were one of only three menu categories (the other two being salads and wraps). Warm grain bowls supplanted the panini last year, following about 12 weeks of testing, Clarke says. Like other next-generation fast casuals, MAD Greens has an impressive pedigree. Founded by two classically trained chefs, Dan Long and Marley Hodgson, the brand has managed to thrive and evolve in one of the industry’s most competitive markets.
But even with its culinary prowess, MAD Greens is more than willing to adjust its chef-driven menu to better serve customers. This boils down to a streamlined menu that can be consistently executed across locations, rather than a barrage of LTOs circulating in every month. “If there were 12 things coming out of the menu every couple of months, that’s very hard and takes a higher skill level of training to make sure they’re always executed appropriately,” Clarke says. “With a simplified approach, we’re able to really showcase what we want to showcase.”
The company’s approach to growth is equally meticulous. Clarke says 2018 will be a bit slower in terms of expansion as the brand is dialing into premium real estate. It can be a challenge given its concentration in up-and-coming urban areas like Austin, Texas; Phoenix; and Salt Like City. The first drive thru, meanwhile, debuted last March in Louisville, Colorado—just off the well-traveled Denver-Boulder Turnpike. It’s a promising format for MAD Greens, but it also presents a David-Goliath situation. “Some of these drive-thru locations, they’re very limited,” Clarke says. “So if we want to do another drive thru, we have to be … on the lookout for the same types of sites that Starbucks is going for.”
Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill
Even though Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill won’t start franchising until this year’s second quarter, it already has a wait list for prospective operators. And CEO Paul Damico says a flood of interest is likely still on its way. Damico has a bit of experience with this kind of thing. Before joining Naf Naf in June, he was the president of North America for Focus Brands, and before that he was president of Moe’s Southwest Grill. Damico helped the Mexican fast casual blossom from 200 units to about 700. When he arrived at Naf Naf, franchisees started to jostle for their spot at the table.
“We’ve got an informal waiting list that stretches across seven states right now,” he says. That interest is part of the reason Damico is there. Before coming on board, he traveled to Chicago and toured the area’s 14 locations. He didn’t tell any of the workers he was coming. He wanted to investigate the brand incognito and see “whether or not this thing had legs.”
“It wasn’t food quality that I witnessed in one restaurant; it was replicated in two days across 14 restaurants,” he says of the chain’s Middle Eastern cuisine, which includes falafel, shawarma, and steak served in a pita or bowl with toppings and sauces. “That told me there was some significant culinary behind what was being done here. This was not a fly-by-night organization.” Sahar Sander and Elan Burger founded Naf Naf in 2009 when they pooled their savings and opened a shop in a former Taco Bell. Business partners David Sloan and Justin Halpenny entered the picture later, and Naf Naf moved to a larger location in Naperville, Illinois.
Private-equity firm Roark Capital Group, which also has investments in Moe’s and Focus Brands’ other concepts, entered the picture in 2015. In January, Naf Naf rebranded from Naf Naf Grill to Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill in an effort to emphasis the concept’s commitment to Middle Eastern cuisine. This was joined by the launch of a fresh loyalty app, logo, and color scheme. Damico says Naf Naf expects to develop between eight and 12 company-operated units per year in seven states (Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio) and the District of Columbia. When franchising opens up, so should that footprint. As it grows, Damico says, Naf Naf will stay true to its three core attributes: from-scratch cooking, a full bakery operation in every restaurant, and food quality that can be measured against the best out there.
“We want our guests to discover new things every day in our brand,” Damico says. “And while we’ll stay true to our core ingredients, there are thousands or hundreds of thousands of ways you can combine those core ingredients in a pita or in a bowl with our salads and our sauces that allows the customer to come every day for a year and never have the same thing twice. That’s pure culinary discovery.”
HQ: New York City
If it’s dreamed up by David Chang, it’s bound to be gold. Sometimes described as a spicy answer to Chick-fil-A, Fuku features a pared-down menu that stars three varieties of Korean-inspired chicken sandwiches along with sides like the Super Green Salad. The Midtown location, known as Fuku+, offers an expanded menu and a happy hour to boot.
Mulberry & Vine
HQ: New York City
Founder and CEO Michelle Gauthier may hail from New Orleans, but the food at Mulberry & Vine is far from the city’s notoriously rich cuisine. Instead, the clean-eating concept pulls flavor inspiration from around the globe with a selection of bowls and plates, proteins and veggie dishes, and infused waters and turmeric lemonade. For a bit of indulgence, the restaurant also serves wine and beer on tap.
Curry Up Now
HQ: San Francisco
Units: 10 (includes 4 food trucks)
Indian fare sheds its excessive décor and formal setting in favor of a hip environment and street food–style eats at this San Francisco fast casual. Cofounder Akash Kapoor plans to follow in the footsteps of innovators like Roy Choi by taking a deeper dive into lesser-known dishes, like Vada Pav (fried potato fritter sliders). Nevertheless, Curry Up Now’s secret weapon might just be the full-service bar, Mortar & Pestle, which slings signature cocktails at two locations.
HQ: San Francisco
Adaptogen lattes, vegan protein waffles, and kelp noodles—oh my! The fresh-pressed juice craze hasn’t vanished, but Project Juice stands to best the competition with a diversified menu that goes far beyond its pre-packaged organic beverages. Of course, cleanse kits—featuring both juices and shots—are still the brand’s bread and butter and readily available through nationwide shipping.
Brown Bag Seafood
In a city not known for its seafood, Brown Bag Seafood Co. is carving out a niche in Chicago’s fast-casual scene. Fish options include a daily catch, salmon, shrimp, and even a lobster roll, while turf options like chicken and veggies eliminate the veto vote. The urban concept may be a bit more polished than the seafood shacks it emulates, but it does share their eco-friendly ethos; Brown Bag partners with the Monterey Bay Aquarium for its sustainable fish program.
Distilled from full-service—and former sister—concept True Food Kitchen, Flower Child brings that same clean-eating ideology to a fast-casual format. The menu takes its culinary cues from far-flung locations, from Vietnam to Thailand and India to the Southwest U.S., in a variety of salads, whole-grain bowls, wraps, and plates. Flower Child spans from California to Georgia, and with restaurateur Sam Fox (of Wildflower and Zinburger fame) at the helm, the brand is bound for continued growth
HQ: Highland, Utah
Although founders Aaron and Lychelle Day were surprised by the success of their first restaurant back in 2009, it’s undeniable that Blue Lemon has a winning formula. Not only did the concept meet the Days’ (and other busy families’) need for affordable, healthy meals, but it also did so in an eco-friendly way. The food is responsibly sourced, while the chairs, boxes, cups, bags, and takeout utensils are made of recycled materials.
HQ: New York City
Anyone looking for proof that plant-based eating has grown far beyond the vegan community need only look to by CHLOE. Thanks in no small part to a robust social media presence, the brand has been able to grow beyond the Big Apple and into Boston; Los Angeles; Providence, Rhode Island; and even now London. By CHLOE has also collaborated with other up-and-comers, offering a vegan shake at Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer and a vegan dumpling at Mimi Cheng’s.
HQ: Columbia, South Carolina
Although it’s one of the larger emerging chains in the Southeast, Urban Cookhouse is still an under-the-radar gem. The Alabama-founded, now-South Carolina–based brand pulls the best elements from casual dining (family-friendly atmosphere, varied menu) and fast casual 2.0 (community ties, elevated quality). The restaurant works with local producers, hosts an annual farmers market at each location, and freshly grills its proteins with locally sourced hickory wood and charcoal.
Evergreens was born out of a mission to bring the East Coast salad craze back home to Seattle. The concept is serious about its values—responsible sourcing, taking care of its 150 employees, environmental stewardship—but fun-loving in its attitude, with playfully named salads like Apple Bottom Greens and Cobb Your Enthusiasm. Plans are in the works to open 10–12 stores this year, first saturating its home turf in the Pacific Northwest before eyeing the rest of the country and international markets.
HQ: Eugene, Oregon
Café Yumm! can be best described as a sleeper concept continually ahead of its time. In 1997, long before the whole-foods craze swept the nation, the brand was serving all-natural animal proteins, organic tofu, and veg-heavy dishes. In 2015, Café Yumm! became Oregon’s first Benefit Company with a “triple bottom line” including environmental and social considerations. To that end, growth has been steady but purposeful. When one location closed last year for renovations, the company kept its staff fully employed, granting them the opportunity to work at other stores and learn about new equipment and catering services.
HQ: Palo Alto, California
CEO Frank Klein labeled 2017 “the year of refinement and brand development” for Asian Box, a fast casual that debuted in March 2012 in Palo Alto, California. The first unit was an immediate hit for Silicon Valley’s diverse population, and its ability to attract a broad demographic has continued to fuel its success. Klein says Asian Box plans to “execute our first 10 stores to perfection in the new climate of fast casual.” This year, Asian Box expects to pare down the menu, introduce new chef-driven items, and strengthen its team and partnerships. “Eyes wide open is the best strategy for 2018,” Klein says.
To offer a glimpse into what life looks like at Velvet Taco these days, president Clay Dover shares an anecdote from a recent customer interaction.
“I just talked some guests into getting the camel,” he says.
There are a lot of fast-casual taco concepts in the marketplace, but Dover is pretty confident his is the only one capable of having camel on the menu. The special was part of Velvet Taco’s Weekly Taco Feature—reverently referred to as WTF by guests—which allows the brand’s culinary team to test 52 bold flavors throughout the year. It’s a prime example of what lifts Velvet Taco above a very crowded pack in fast casual—and also why it’s not exactly the easiest concept to scale. In fall 2016, Velvet Taco, which was created by Dallas-based Front Burner Restaurants, received an investment from private-equity firm L Catterton, the same group with investments in Chopt, Hopdoddy, Piada, Noodles & Company, Punch Bowl Social, Snap Kitchen, and more emerging brands. Dover knows the expectation from many outsiders was that Velvet Taco would immediately launch its brand into the triple-digit stratosphere.
But that just wasn’t in the brand’s DNA. “The investment allows us to invest on the infrastructure that we need to scale up,” says Dover, who served as chief marketing officer for Pei Wei before joining Velvet Taco in March. With the infusion of capital, Velvet Taco hired a director of culinary and multiunit directors of operations in Chicago and Houston. Dover also brought in a vice president of training. As of right now, there is no target number of units or states to enter, just the notion that the concept will grow responsibly, intelligently, and with its standards and performance closely guarded. “We’re going to open one successful restaurant at a time,” he says, noting that average unit volume is north of $4 million. “And we’ll make sure they perform up to our expectations and our standards. We’re company-owned. We’re going to stay that way. We’re going to make sure we’re very diligent and thoughtful on our way to growth.” The brand will continue to build out its existing markets—Texas and Chicago—while looking at new ones that fit its demographics. No matter where it goes, the formula won’t change. “What we do is very unique,” Dover says. “From our site locations to the amount of attention we put toward training to the recipes to the adherence of our food standards—we just want to do it the right way every time.”
Units: 3 (includes 1 food truck)
Inspired by his family’s restaurant, Grayhorse: An American Indian Eatery, Ben Jacobs, along with business partner Matt Chandra, hoped to introduce a new (old) cuisine into Colorado’s fast-casual melting pot when they opened their first location in 2008. As already the largest American Indian restaurant chain in the country, Tocabe offers fresh, clean-label, local, and responsibly sourced ingredients in dishes like Indian Tacos and Stuffed Fry Breads. A third brick-and-mortar Tocabe is expected to open in the second quarter of 2018, and the founders are also reviewing new Denver build-outs and potential sites for a fourth restaurant in late 2018.
Next Level Burger
HQ: Bend, Oregon
From the moment Matt de Gruyter penned a business plan for Next Level Burger, he had grand visions in mind. In sum: 1,000 units in 10 years. De Gruyter knows the target is off-the-charts ambitious, but he sees no reason to cap the franchise’s potential. Claiming to be America’s first 100 percent plant-based burger joint, the brand is growing in standalone locations, as well as inside Whole Foods stores up and down the West Coast. De Gruyter says he didn’t create Next Level because the market was ripe for plant-based eating, but rather because it was a way of life for his family. “We did it because it was what we believed in and what we thought was best,” he says. “And it just happened to line up as far as the trend swinging in the right direction when it comes to plant-based and non-GMO organic foods.”
Cheba Hut Toasted Subs
HQ: Fort Collins, Colorado
Cheba Hut’s offbeat culture—“escape the established” is its motto—has been driving the brand since founder Scott Jennings opened the doors in 1998. With $30 million in annual sales, the fast casual has continued to grow by keeping its focus on interactions, not transactions, and taking care of its people. Locations feature full bars with an emphasis on local craft beer, while the menu centers on sandwiches, drinks, and munchies (Rice Krispie bars, brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and more). Cheba Hut aims to add five to 10 units per year, with an emphasis on its existing West Coast and Midwest markets.
Formerly known as “Ruggles Green,” Bellagreen was the Houston area’s first Certified Green Restaurant company. The concept, which was founded in 2008 and rebranded this past summer, requires all units to be at least three-star green certified. That eco-friendly mission is just part of what drives the fast casual. Another is its ability to let guests customize meals based on dietary needs. As for the future, Bellagreen hopes to open 20-plus units over the next several years and expand beyond the Texas market.
Roti Modern Mediterranean
Roti is growing quickly. The fast casual opened 10 restaurants in 2017 and expanded to two new markets, bringing its total unit count to 33 restaurants in six states and Washington, D.C. Roti, which was founded in 2007, expects to keep that pace humming in 2018, with even more markets on the horizon. The concept began this expansion plan in earnest back in 2015, when it dropped “Grill” from its name and added “Modern.” It also overhauled the menu and invested in its “modern” moniker by launching new digital experiences that will make getting its health-driven food even more convenient for guests.
HQ: New Orleans
In the past six years, Dat Dog has earned a cult following for its outside-the-box take on an American classic—think crawfish, duck, and alligator sausages. Tack on late-night hours, more than 30 toppings, local beer, and a vibrant atmosphere, and Dat Dog has developed into one of Louisiana’s most exciting and unique fast casuals. That secret is about to be shared, however. Dat Dog officially launched a franchising program earlier in 2017, and has already signed two development agreements totaling 28 locations. The company expects to open an additional 40–50 restaurants in an area stretching from Texas to Florida over the next five years.
If someone was going to bring Israeli cuisine to the fast-casual scene with a flourish, it was going to be CookNSolo, the restaurant group behind legendary eatery Zahav. Its leaders, multiple James Beard Award–winner Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook, opened the Israeli fine-dining restaurant in Philadelphia in 2008. Dizengoff, a fast-casual hummus concept, arrived in the summer of 2014 and expanded to a second location in New York City’s Chelsea Market in spring of 2016. There are now four locations, with more on the way. Dizengoff is modeled on the hummus stalls (hummusiyas) found on street corners in Israel. The focus is freshly made hummus topped with rotating seasonal garnishes, like hot spiced lamb with pine nuts or avocado with harissa.
HQ: Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
The fast-casual pasta concept from James Beard–nominated chef Hari Cameron, who heads the celebrated Delaware restaurant a(MUSE.), aims to bring locally sourced, high-quality pasta dishes to guests at an affordable price. Diners can watch pasta being extruded on-site and pick from a diverse menu that also includes panini made with artisanal cheese, specialty soups, salads, and craft beer and wine. Cameron says the concept, named after his great-grandfather Cameron McCurdy, is planning steady, incremental growth, and he’s scouting urban and suburban locations in the Mid-Atlantic.