FSR 50: America’s Top 50 Emerging Restaurant Chains
Firebirds Wood Fired Grill
This North Carolina–based wood-fired concept has not only opened locations across the South and Midwest, it is also poised to grow even faster after being purchased by venture capital firm J.H. Whitney Capital Partners in December.
Rated the No. 1 Mexican/Tex-Mex restaurant by Consumer Reports since 2006, Abuelo’s continues its steady, sustainable expansion. In May, the chain added antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed chicken to its menu.
The Texas-based chain has been slinging out modern Mexican eats and margaritas—of which there are a dozen varieties—for 35 years across the U.S. and now as far afield as the U.K. and U.A.E.
True Food Kitchen
For Shannon Keller, digital is the future of marketing. True Food Kitchen’s chief marketing officer, who took on the role in March as the first CMO in company history, has her sights set on capturing a changing audience and connecting with them beyond the four walls of the restaurant.
This upscale Mexican restaurant already had a solid formula before L Catterton scooped it up in late 2017. Now it’s even stronger; Uncle Julio’s closed 2018 with sales up 14 percent.
Umami Burger credits a lot of its success to the partnerships it makes.
“We have a special Artist Series program, which brings partners from a wide range of fields together to create incredible dishes that support a charitable cause,” says Sam Nazarian, CEO and chairman of sbe Entertainment, which owns the brand. Among the people the concept has partnered with so far are Daniel Boulud, Alton Brown, Jon Bon Jovi, and Cindy Crawford.
“We truly believe each brand we partner with creates a unique experience for our guests. We’re looking for the best global companies that are at the forefront of their respective industries,” Nazarian says. “At Umami Burger, we are less focused on trends and more focused on creating groundbreaking moments and memories for our customers.”
It seems to be working, because Umami Burger is growing. Founded in 2009, the chain now has 26 locations globally, with U.S. locations in California, New York, Illinois, and Nevada, and international restaurants in the Bahamas, Japan, and Mexico.
The company recently announced that it will open more than 100 Umami Burger restaurants across the globe over the next seven years in partnership with AccorHotels, which acquired a 50 percent stake in sbe Entertainment last year. —Amanda Baltazar
Native Grill & Wings
Native Grill & Wings continues to capitalize on Americans’ infatuation with wings. Earlier this year it landed on Entrepreneur‘s Franchise 500 list.
The Broken Yolk Café
It’s been a decade since an episode of “Man vs. Food” catapulted a local legend into a franchise frenzy. The San Diego independent now spans 34 locations across six states.
Founded in 2006 by brothers Jon and Adam Schlegel, Snooze, an A.M. Eatery, has grown to 31 units in four states with a brand built on three pillars: community, sustainability, and responsible sourcing for a decidedly chef-driven menu.
The Lost Cajun
Raymond “Griff” Griffin never planned to own any restaurants, but he opened The Lost Cajun almost on a whim in November 2010. Now he anticipates 100 units in operation within four years.
The Lost Cajun started in Frisco, Colorado, as an 800-square-foot restaurant serving just four menu items: seafood gumbo, fried catfish, chicken and sausage gumbo, and beignets, all from original recipes. “We’re not trying to be Cajun,” says Griffin, who is from Louisiana. “We are Cajun.”
Two years after Lost Cajun made its debut, Griffin opened a second in Breckenridge, Colorado, then started franchising in 2014. There are now 23 restaurants among Colorado and six Southern states, with seven more under construction and expected to open this year, then six more in 2020. Griffin could easily open twice as many stores but prefers to keep growth at a steady pace and build support systems.
Griffin is learning as he goes. “I’ve never been in the restaurant business, so I have to do this slowly and educate myself about the franchise business.” He says he’s learned the rules of the industry through mentors, trade shows, and a constant curiosity. —AB
Elmer’s Breakfast - Lunch - Dinner
Elmer’s balances an old-school diner atmosphere with fare that is a step above the pancake-meatloaf-pie paradigm thanks to options like Lingonberry Crepes and Rock Salt Roasted Prime Rib.
Rocky Mountain sensibility meets upscale casual at this 30-unit concept that specializes in New American fare (think: Pork Belly BLT and Heirloom Bean Salad) and even boasts its own beer of the month club.
Boston’s Pizza Restaurant
The Canadian-born restaurant and sports bar has ballooned to 400 locations across North America, but with only 23 of them in the U.S., Boston’s still has plenty of runway ahead.
Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar
Scott Taylor, president and chief operating officer of Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar, doesn’t invest in restaurants as much as he invests in people, because that’s what he feels is behind the success of his 28-location chain.
“We’ve built an incredible culture within our teams, from our corporate office to each location,” Taylor says. “When people become franchisees, they are part of our family, and we have successes and failures together.” He also feels strongly about having regional franchise coaches, who oversee 10 stores at the most so they can visit every store, as well as dedicated regional marketing managers and culinary managers.
The second key to success of this Baton Rouge, Louisiana–based chain is that as the team began working on the franchise program, they systematized everything they did, from hiring staff and operating shifts to preparing the menu and working with the local community. “We’ve even systematized the basics, like how we clean things and put them away. This makes it easier for franchisees to expand,” Taylor says.
And it’s working. The concept, which opened in 2007, will launch another 14 units this year to close 2019 with 42, and Taylor anticipates adding another 20 next year. Three of next year’s stores will be corporate stores, “because the franchisees like to see the franchisor have some skin in the game,” he says. “And we believe in our brand, too.” —AB
Rock & Brews
Classic rock inspired—and continues to inform—this 22-unit chain, which puts its own spin on traditional pub staples while doubling down on local, craft beer.
Following in the footsteps of big sister Texas Roadhouse, Bubba’s 33 has planted flags far and wide with the intention of filling in the white space—possibly as soon as 2021.
The classic seafood-steak combination is alive and well at this Orlando-based chain. While its pipeline numbers fewer than a dozen units, Eddie V’s enjoys the pooled resources of parent company, Darden, for future growth.
Growth has been slow and steady for 36-year-old Lupe Tortilla, but it’s finally ready to tackle new markets beyond the Lone Star State.
The flagship—and eponymous restaurant—of J. Alexander’s Holdings group continued its trend of single-unit spring openings with a Pennsylvania addition in 2018 and a Houston one in March.
Kura Revolving Sushi Bar
This Japanese brand numbers nearly 400 units in its home turf but is still an up-and-comer in the U.S. The conveyor belt of rotating, seasonal sushi, as well as Kura’s mascot, Muten-Maru, makes for an interactive guest experience.
Eggs Up Grill
The Southern breakfast chain is turning up the heat on expansion.
Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant
Barcelona may yet establish itself as the top Spanish tapas chain in the U.S. following its and sister restaurant Bartaco’s acquisition by L Catterton in June.
Keke’s Breakfast Cafe
Keke’s Breakfast Cafe cofounder Kevin Mahen thinks he and brother and cofounder Keith have found the secret to full-service restaurant success: fresh-made food served quickly in a daytime setting.
Not only do the brews reflect the local craft scene at HopCat locations, the physical spaces vary widely. As an example, the Kansas City store sports a four-season rooftop cabana.
The sports bar boasts a menu with no-antibiotic wagyu burgers, scratch-made appetizers, and the five-time Buffalo Wing Festival award-winning wings.
To be sure, the taco category is a crowded one, but Bartaco’s upscale—but not too pricey—take on the humble carrier lends it an inherent, competitive edge.
The key to Famous Toastery’s success, says CEO Robert Maynard, is not competing with others. And that’s trickier now than when he opened the first restaurant in 2005—a time when there were far fewer full-service breakfast concepts.
“We set out on our own plan; we are on our own growth trajectory and doing what we do best at the pace we feel is best for our business,” he says. “You’ve got to have your goals and stick to them. If you don’t, you’ll follow every trend and do what everyone else is doing.”
And as it has since the beginning, the chain only offers from-scratch, high-quality food, while Maynard believes many competitors are taking the “cheap route.”
Famous Toastery has just over 40 units in six states and expects to open another 15–20 stores before the end of 2020. The time is right to increase franchising, Maynard says, because he finally has the right team in place, including executives, field staff in the trenches, managers, and general managers.
The biggest challenge Maynard faces, he says, is ensuring franchisees operate their units correctly. “People spend a lot of money to join a franchise, and with a franchise you get what works,” he says. “When people start deviating is when things go wrong.” —AB
Burtons Grill & Bar
Customization is key for Burtons, which is perennially named among the most allergy-friendly chains in the country. Only halfway into 2019, it already has three new locations either open or in the works.
After P.J. Whelihan’s Pub + Restaurant opened its first location in 1983, it took 10 years to open the second. But the concept has continued to grow since then and today has 17 company-owned stores, five partnerships with arenas, and one wing truck, with two more locations anticipated later this year.
“Growth has steadily accelerated, and [we’ve] been able to remain nimble enough to react to economic opportunities and challenges. We’re proud that we’ve never had to close a location,” says CEO Jim Fris.
One key to P.J. Whelihan’s success is that its operating company, PJW. Restaurant Group, opens restaurants in communities that are on the rise, Fris says, “ones that have 20-plus years of growth ahead of them.” Then, he says, each restaurant gets “genuinely involved in what makes them thrive. Whether it’s the local church, the local team, the surrounding businesses we support—it pays off, and they in turn support us, too. People get to know us, we get to know them—and build loyalty and affinity.”
But P.J. Whelihan’s isn’t complacent. “We always ask ourselves, ‘How do we deliver wins at the store level?’” Fris says. “We challenge ourselves to be better every day. Operational processes and technology are a big part of that. We’re working to streamline efforts for both front and back of the house.” —AB
Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille
A veritable institution in Houston, Perry’s marked 40 years in business this June. Texas still accounts for the bulk of its system, but forthcoming locations in Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina will soon expand its reach.
The Flying Biscuit
The Flying Biscuit is soaring high with five new stores in 2018 and six more completed by summer’s end. It’s well on the way to its goal of 30 units by 2020.
There’s a fine line between being a fun and irreverent restaurant and being too much, but Bad Daddy’s stays on the right side of it. “It’s more about having a high-energy restaurant, and we like our employees to be very informal,” says Boyd Hoback, president and CEO of Good Times Restaurants, parent company of Bad Daddy’s.
The concept, he says, offers personal, welcoming, engaging service and is a “non-chain chain.” The irreverence comes through in the décor, which Hoback describes as garage grunge from the 1970s and ’80s. For example, the men’s restroom features posters of Farrah Fawcett, while the ladies’ shows Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.
And while Bad Daddy’s takes its food seriously, featuring regional ingredients prepared in a scratch kitchen, it also offers a Bad Ass Burger and a Bad Ass Margarita. “We encourage customers to let their ‘badassness’ fly,” Hoback says. The concept, he adds, is upscale casual, with an average per-person check of $18.
Casual dining, he says, “is being commoditized around value and lacks a passion for food and hospitality.” But Bad Daddy’s is different. “We’re not trying to give guests the cheapest food; we pay a lot of attention to quality ingredients and try to have some recipes and taste profiles that are way out there,” Hoback says. “We bring cool to the suburbs.” —AB
Panini Kabob Grill
This California chain puts a West Coast spin on Mediterranean favorites. Panini Kabob will soon expand beyond the Golden State as deals in Las Vegas and Scottsdale, Arizona, come to fruition.
Punch Bowl Social
The Denver-based chain infuses the standard restaurant formula with a jolt of fun—in the form of karaoke, foosball, bowling, and the like. To wit, Fast Company recently named it as one of the 50 Most Innovative Companies in the world.
Over the past year this urbane concept has posted impressive domestic same-store sales growth each quarter, the most recent hitting 8.6 percent.
JINYA Ramen Bar
For JINYA Ramen Bar, the keys to successful growth are involving franchisees as much as possible and diversifying the restaurant profile.
Cameron Mitchell’s renowned Ocean Prime combines upscale settings with a vibrant energy, an impressive menu of seafood and steaks, and exceptional hospitality. The company opened its first location in Chicago earlier this year.
This culinarily minded restaurant has a test kitchen menu with dishes like Korean Hot Chicken and Waffles that punch well above their weight.
Blue Sushi Sake Grill
The Nebraska-based concept presents a diverse selection of maki, sashimi, and nigiri, along with atataki (warm) and tsumetai (cool) dishes. And don’t miss the brand’s specialty: vegan maki.
110 Grill is the place to go for those with food allergies, and in March, AllergyEats ranked it No. 4 on its list of the five most allergy-friendly small chains with fewer than 50 locations.
Hosts at the restaurants ask guests as they enter if they would like an allergy menu, and most items are the same, just modified, says Ryan Dion, COO. In the back of the house, there’s a binder listing all possible allergens in each dish. “This is a growing part of our business; more than 20 percent of our sales are with allergy meals,” Dion says. “If you can do it the right way and do it safely, it’s a great way to grow.”
Dion and his business partner, developer Robert Walker, launched the 110 Grill restaurant group in 2014 and opened the first restaurant that year. In the five years since then, the chain has grown to 22 locations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York. It’s opened four this year, with four more to come, and possibly 10 next year. The stores are all company-owned, “and it’s our goal, long-term, to be national,” Dion says. “It’s challenging to visit all the stores, but that’s why I have layers of people in place.” —AB
Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House
This Texas-based micro-chain boasts the highest average-unit volumes ($14 million) and the second highest company-wide sales, bested only by Uncle Julio’s, whose revenue stream is bolstered by more than twice the unit count.
Real comfort food is the name of the game at Aubrey’s, which intermingles Southern staples with more refined, new American bites across East Tennessee.
It’s been four years since J. Alexander’s rebranded several locations as Redlands Grill. Like its progenitor, Redlands Grill specializes in contemporary American eats with check averages around $30.
Pinstripes isn’t just about dining out; it’s about connections, says founder and CEO Dale Schwartz. And he’s not talking about the type you make digitally.
In each location, the chain features a bistro, bowling lanes, bocce courts, and event spaces, and the concept “was inspired by an appreciation for authentic connections with others,” he says. “People come for different reasons. We’re a restaurant with bowling and bocce, not the other way around.”
The concept started 12 years ago in Chicago and has grown to 10 locations in seven states. This year it’s opening three more and another three or four in 2020, with the goal of opening internationally before too long. All locations are company-owned, though for foreign units, Schwartz would have a partner in that country for local market intel.
“When you franchise, it makes it a little harder to have that special esprit de corps and cohesive team culture,” he says.
What’s important to Schwartz is that Pinstripes doesn’t feel like a chain. “Each location is slightly different, but all stay true to our concept and brand,” he says. “New locations may have all the bells and whistles, but all the locations are cut from the same cloth.” —AB
Stoney River Steakhouse
The third multiunit concept within J. Alexander’s Holdings is a step up from the other two, leaning more into high-ticket steakhouse fare.
Karl Strauss Brewing Company
As one of the earliest adopters of the craft beer movement, the California-exclusive brewery/restaurant celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. And while many craft breweries have since cropped up, the founders of Karl Strauss are confident their brand has staying power—and growth potential.
Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant
Iron Hill was founded in 1996 and began with just one location in Newark, Delaware. Since then, the company has been winning awards for its beers and is, it claims, the most award-winning brewery east of the Mississippi.
The company’s beer and food have always stood on their own, but work well together, and the menus offer specific pairings. They’re also paired irrevocably, in that chefs cook with the beer.
Each Iron Hill location is heavily connected to the local community and donates money to both CureSearch for Children’s Cancer and to a local cause chosen by each individual restaurant. “While the commitment is financial, our connection to supporting and participating in the local community goes much deeper,” says CEO Kim Boerema. “We realize that the idea of community starts with how we treat our employees and goes well beyond our four walls.”
Over its 23 years, Iron Hill has expanded to 17 locations in four states: Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and South Carolina. “We are looking at vibrant and growing communities in the Southeastern U.S.,” Boerema says. —AB
Half ground beef, half ground bacon burgers are a key component to Slater’s success. Just shy of a dozen units, the SoCal-based brand opened three units last year and has already expanded as far afield as Dallas and Honolulu.
Boombozz Craft Pizza & Taphouse
A cluster approach to expansion has served Boombozz Craft Pizza & Taphouse well. The restaurant started in Louisville and has since moved into adjacent cities around Indianapolis and Nashville, Tennessee.
Since Bareburger opened in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York, in 2009, its goals have remained the same: to serve clean, sustainable, organic (whenever possible), and locally sourced foods. And despite growing to 40 locations in seven states and three other countries, the company has stuck to its guns.
It’s also evolved and now serves exotic proteins (wild boar, ostrich, duck, and elk). It also eliminated some proteins to create a menu that’s 50 percent vegan, with some products from Beyond Meat, Impossible, and JUST. “We’ve always taken great pride in serving great food,” says CEO Euripides Pelekanos. “Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, kosher, or just plain hungry, we are eager to serve you.”
Bareburger has also stayed humble in its expansion efforts. “One of our biggest strengths is how resilient we are,” Pelekanos says. “Being able to bounce back and realizing what worked and what did not is important.”
The concept plans to open 13 more locations by the end of the year. “We’re taking a regional approach,” he says. “We look for great operators to partner with.” —AB