The Top 50 Emerging Restaurant Chains
FSR names the 50 high-potential, performance-proven full-service brands to keep on your radar—each with fewer than 50 locations.
Performance and potential earned restaurants a spot among this year’s FSR 50—that, and the fact that each has a portfolio of fewer than 50 units. We’re talking emergent chains, those that have a growing presence and a penchant for progress, be it defined as menu innovation, sales growth, brand expansion, or community support. You’ll discover regional brands that have been around for decades, like Elmer’s, which opened in 1960 in Portland, Oregon, and has given birth to a new concept that it plans to develop in the Southwest. Along with brands like Snooze, which got its start just 11 years ago but has already awakened the Denver region to a heightened appreciation for polished breakfast service and exceptionally sustainable processes. For performance metrics, look to the chart on Pages 48 to 49, which details total company sales, average unit volume, number of units, and areas of operation for each of the FSR 50 brands.
RAnk by SAles/AUV/Locations: View the FSR 50 Chart
40 units Family-friendly and focused on authentic Tex-Mex cuisine and ambiance, this popular brand, which boasts it has been ranked the No. 1 Mexican Restaurant by Consumer Reports every year since 2006, is adding three or more units a year, primarily in its existing markets. Two leases are already signed for 2018.
Arooga’s Grille House & Sports Bar
Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas
14 units A tech-savvy brand, Arooga’s offers a cardless loyalty program (guests simply sign up online); it also has online ordering capabilities and catering services. Ten of the 14 locations are company-owned and four are franchised; five additional franchise units will open through the end of this year and into the first quarter of 2018.
Connecticut, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia
9 units Part of the Locals 8 Restaurant Group, b Restaurants raised the bar on premium burger and brew venues when it added bourbon to its mission statement. This month hails the conclusion of the brand’s Tour d’Pappy promotion, which started in January at the flagship West Hartford location and ran across seven locations where prix fixe five-course dinners were paired with the legendary Pappy Van Winkle bourbons.
Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar
Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee
23 units In 2015, Good Times Restaurants spent $21 million to acquire Bad Daddy’s, a brand in which it already had a 48 percent stake. Good Times has its sights set on growth, with a total of eight new units planned for this year, which would bring the portfolio to a total of 28 locations by year-end. Performance numbers remain healthy, with average per-person checks coming in at $17, alcoholic beverage sales running 14 to 24 percent of total sales, and traffic balanced between 40 percent lunch and 60 percent dinner.
Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant
Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia, and the District of Columbia
13 units The consummate wine bar for adventuresome foodies, this concept is known for its tapas from Spain and the Mediterranean region—and even more so for its robust collection of Spanish-focused wines. Wine Enthusiast sings the praises of its list of some 400 wines, with 40 available by the glass. And the experience is unique to each setting, with design elements that capture the identity and culture of local surroundings. No wonder the AUV tops $3.7 million.
New York City
Seven states, the District of Columbia, Canada, Germany, Japan, and United Arab Emirates
42 units Winner of the 2016 James Beard Foundation “Blended Burger Project,” Bareburger remains an odds-on favorite to be in the running again this year. (Winners will be announced this month.) Meanwhile, the brand merits praise for its sustainable practices and commitment to fresh, clean food and doing right by its people, processes, and product.
Black Angus Steakhouse
Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Washington
44 units The only company among our FSR 50 to own units in Alaska and Hawaii as well as the continental U.S., Black Angus is a true beefeater’s steakhouse—with average sales at each unit topping $3.6 million. And the brand’s tagline says it best: “Here’s to the nights you can’t remember and the steaks you won’t forget.”
Blue Sushi Sake Grill
Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Texas
11 units Blink your eyes and that unit count will be up: This sushi brand’s on a roll. Two additional locations are opening this year, in Dallas and Indianapolis. Who’d have guessed there would be such demand (AUV comes in at $3.25 million) for sushi and sake in landlocked states across America’s Heartland?
Alabama, Colorado, Ohio, Missouri, Minnesota, Illinois, Texas, London, and United Arab Emirates
40 units With a mix of company-owned and franchised locations, parent company Consolidated Restaurant Operations has taken its Tex-Mex brand to 12 states, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. The menu gives traditional Mexican fare a modern interpretation, and everything is prepared fresh daily.
Carolina Ale House
Raleigh, North Carolina
Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia
30 units Owned by Lou and Joy Moshakos, LM Restaurants—the parent company of Carolina Ale House—is truly a family-operated business with their three daughters helping run the burgeoning restaurant empire, which now extends from the Carolinas across neighboring states Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant
Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, WIsconsin
28 units In addition to the chef-driven cuisine in its restaurants, the brand is known for its award-winning wines. Cooper’s Hawk has won more than 300 local, national, and international wine awards, and its winery produces 5 million bottles annually. Its signature wine club has 250,000 members who are invited to signature wine dinners in the restaurants as well as to other special events and perks. Founder and CEO Tim McEnery was honored earlier this year with the 2017 LEAD Award for Corporate Leadership, presented by HR.com, the largest social networking and resource site for HR professionals. For locations open three years or more, the average annual sales volume is $9.4 million, and the company is moving its winery and headquarters to a 125,000-square-foot facility in Woodridge, Illinois.
Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House
Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and the District of Columbia
13 units The big city crown jewel in the DFRG portfolio, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House boasts an average check of $115 and a loyal following in the cities it serves. A bump in first- quarter sales (up 3.7 percent from last year) was attributed to increased weekly revenues at relocated units in Dallas and Orlando. Clearly this is a brand that knows all the right moves.
Del Frisco’s Grille
12 states and the District of Columbia
24 units This is Del Frisco Restaurant Group’s answer to making its fine-dining brands, Double Eagle Steak House and Sullivan’s, more accessible and affordable. The $48 average Grille check plants this brand squarely in the polished-casual segment—that plus its varied and inventive menu that speaks millennial on every level. In its financial statements, the group says the Grille will be the “primary driver of new unit growth in the near term.” Smart move, since sales for the quarter that ended March 21 were up 10 percent from the same period last year.
Syracuse, New York
Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York
9 units Barbecue may not come to mind when thinking of New York, but Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is squashing preconceived notions. With nine locations throughout the Northeast, the casual brand offers guests slow-smoked meats, homemade sides, live music, and, of course, local and seasonal beer.
Arizona, California, FLorida, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia
17 units Darden Restaurants proves a corporate group can absolutely deliver on fine-dining excellence. The company reported that Eddie V’s set new sales records during key holidays in the previous year, and in the third quarter of this fiscal year (December through February), Eddie V’s saw same-restaurant sales spike an impressive 11 percent.
Arizona, California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington
26 units This brand got its start back in 1960 when it operated under the name Elmer’s Colonial Pancake House and was owned by Walt and Dorothy Elmer. It was all about home cooking then, as it still is now, and Walt’s original pancake recipe remains a menu foundation. Eight locations are company-owned and 18 are franchised units. Like all prolific families, Elmer’s recently spun off another concept, Egg N’Joe, which is open for breakfast and lunch only. There are two Egg N’Joe units open in Arizona, with a third under construction. The company plans to build out the Phoenix market and begin franchising this brand by the end of the year.
California, Colorado, Idaho, Texas, and Washington
22 units Within its inviting rustic industrial settings, this brand has coined the “eatertainment” experience—one that is filled with exceptional food, beer, spirits, and music. Expansion plans call for new locations in Southern and Northern California, along with an opening in Las Vegas. All units are company-owned, with an average sales volume of $3.2 million and total company sales ringing in at $70 million.
Huntersville, North Carolina
Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia
22 units A popular breakfast, brunch, lunch concept since it launched in 2005, the company hit a true millennial nerve when it decided to focus on boozy brunches. Last summer the brand added a signature pairings selection to its menu, and sales jumped 35 percent. With annual sales approaching $30 million, the company expects to open 10 locations in the coming year. Of the existing 22 units, six are company-owned and 16 are franchised.
Firebirds Wood Fired Grill
Charlotte, North Carolina
43 units Founder Dennis Thompson, who also launched Lone Star Steakhouse and Saloon, envisioned the concept as “polished-casual dining”—a white tablecloth experience without the price tag and a step up from casual-dining competitors. Menu items include classic beef cuts like prime rib and filet mignon, as well as the brand’s signature Chile Rubbed Delmonico and Wood Grilled Salmon basted with key lime butter.
Since the brand began in Charlotte, North Carolina, it has grown to 45 units across the country with annual sales averaging $3.7 million per location. Success is due in part to assertive strategizing; the company is constantly thinking of ways to innovate and stay relevant in an increasingly competitive segment, says vice president of marketing Stephen Loftis. Case in point: Firebirds is launching a new restaurant prototype later this year as it looks to backfill existing markets before entering new ones. Now located in several states including Arizona, Ohio, and Florida, the restaurant is evaluating locations in Texas.
Firebirds describes itself as a “conscious organization,” meaning that it approaches each business decision with consideration toward both its communities and the environment. The company uses sustainably harvested wood, serves sustainably raised salmon and trout, and recycles fryer oil. The brand also intends to stay on the forefront of adopting practices to reduce kitchen waste.
The company has raised more than $95,000 annually for pediatric cancer research and the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, selling freshly squeezed lemonade year-round, with proceeds going to the foundation. The support is highlighted by an annual fundraiser when lemonade sales are augmented by sales from its LTO Big Daddy Lemon Cake, plus guests rounding up checks.
Flying Biscuit Café
Florida, Georgia, North Carolina
14 units When the doors of Flying Biscuit Café first opened in 1993 at 7 a.m., the restaurant sold out of biscuits by 11. Twenty-four years and 13 more locations later, the Southern-inspired breakfast brand has retained that initial popularity and brings in more than $20 million per year. Flying Biscuit Café will open its first Texas location in Richardson this fall, with another restaurant planning to open in Dallas.
Fogo de Chão
Major cities in U.S., Brazil, and Mexico
48 units Fogo de Chão’s development strategy emphasizes market penetration, balanced with new entries into key metropolitan areas in North America. The remaining domestic openings anticipated for 2017 will be in Jacksonville, Florida, and Troy, Michigan. From an international perspective, Fogo anticipates opening joint-venture restaurants in the Middle East. Overall, Fogo has plans to increase the company-owned restaurant count by at least 10 percent annually over the next five years. All U.S. and Brazil locations are company-owned; the locations in Mexico City are joint-venture partnerships.
Granite City Food & Brewery
St. Cloud, Minnesota
36 units This polished-casual venue has an on-site brewery and an open kitchen where chef-driven dishes are made from scratch. The goal is freshly brewed beer and freshly made food. Its signature brews include Broad Axe, an oatmeal stout, and Prairie Vixen, a hefeweizen, plus a bock, a pale ale, an American lager, and a double IPA. The restaurant takes its name from the nickname of its hometown, which was known in the 1880s for family breweries that cropped up to quench the thirst of miners working in the granite quarries. Now the brand has locations from Iowa to Tennessee.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee
27 units It’s so much more than a sports bar that even ESPN named this brand runner-up in its Best Sports Bar in North America ranking; but menu diversity and innovation is where this restaurant ranks highest. A kids’ menu with nine entrées and nine sides speaks to the family-friendly focus; a B.Y.O. Salad option that lets guests choose everything from leaf bases to veggies, toppings, and proteins sends a shout-out to health-conscious diners; and traditional pub grub like wings and burgers share the spotlight with Seared Ahi Tuna, Cedar Salmon, Shrimp and Grits, and the list could go on.
Beverly Hills, California
Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas
16 units Part of the Hillstone Restaurant Group, Houston’s name is a nod to the home state of founders George and Carol Biel. HRG has a number of brands including its eponymous restaurant, which was one of the first polished-casual concepts when it debuted in 1977. There are nine Hillstone restaurants operating around the country, but Houston’s has become the group’s leader, with 16 locations in major cities across the country.
Corte Madera, California
California, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Washington
21 units The brand got its start as a baking school in Barlassina, Italy, in 1972, and opened its first U.S. bakery in 1981, followed by the first full-service restaurant in 1987. The company was acquired in 2011 by Roark Capital Group. In addition to the 21 signature locations, it also owns and operates two locations under the Canaletto Ristorante Veneto brand and a catering business that hosts on-site and off-premises events throughout California.
19 units A low table-to-server ratio is the trademark of concepts in the J. Alexander’s Holdings group, and nowhere is that more evident than in the signature brand, where average checks come in at $30.41 per person. Dinner service is 68 percent of the business, with lunch at 32 percent.
7 units Since it started in 1999, Jonathan’s Grille has given guests two settings within one restaurant. Part upscale restaurant and part casual sports bar with TVs, Jonathan’s has grown throughout its home market of Tennessee and is looking to expand its footprint even more.
Legal Sea Foods
Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and the District of Columbia
36 units Launched in 1950, this brand is in its second generation of management by the Berkowitz family. With eight locations in major airport terminals, the concept has played a key role in the elevation of upscale dining options for travelers.
matchbox American Kitchen + Spirit
Florida, Maryland, Texas, Virginia, and The District of COlumbia
11 units Artisanal pizzas cooked in authentic brick ovens in a rustic industrial setting—sure it’s been done before. But these guys are doing it really, really well. And the “Spirit” tag in the name? That speaks to a prolific bar scene—complete with local brews, signature wine blends, and truly crafty cocktails—plus a community spirit that has embedded sustainable practices throughout the operations and connects restaurants with local opportunities to make a difference.
Native Grill & Wings
Arizona, Idaho, Massachusetts, Montana, Texas, South Dakota
34 units The name changed in 2014 to Native Grill & Wings, but the company actually dates to 1978 when Buffalo, New York, city slickers Floyd and Judy Anderson took their dream of owning a restaurant westward and opened Native New Yorker in Arizona. Current expansion plans call for adding a Tulsa, Oklahoma, location along with a Northern Arizona location. The current portfolio includes three company-owned locations and 31 franchised units.
Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Texas
9 units Courtesy of Fox Restaurant Concepts, this polished-casual brand dishes up homemade pasta and scratch-made pizzas to the tune of per-person checks that average $25 to $30. New restaurants are slated to open soon in Las Vegas and Austin, the Texas capital’s second location.
11 states and the District of Columbia
14 units The fine-dining jewel in the Cameron Mitchell Restaurants portfolio, Ocean Prime restaurants present nothing like a chain. From food to beverage to service to setting, each restaurant conveys the image of a premium independent operation. The 14 locations are in major markets around the country, and each is designed to reflect the energy and inspiration of its city. Beginning in 2008, and every year since, Ocean Prime has been recognized with the Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence.”
Paul Martin’s American Grill
Arizona, California, Texas
11 units The culmination of restaurateur Paul Fleming’s and Chef Brian Bennett’s vision for serving fresh, contemporary California cuisine, the polished-dining experience suggests a per-person food check higher than the $30 average it tallies. The concept is also known for its expansive wine collection, including more than 70 selections offered by the glass.
Pinstripes Bistro Bowling Bocce
Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and the District of Columbia
7 units At Pinstripes, guests don’t have to come just for the bowling or bocce. The entertainment-focused restaurant offers an upscale Italian-American menu alongside rotating craft beers and handcrafted cocktails. An eighth location is scheduled to open this month in Bethesda, Maryland; four locations are slated to open next year; and deals are inked for 2019 and 2020.
RAM Restaurant & Brewery
Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Oregon, Washington
24 units With roots going back to 1971, the RAM transitioned from family ownership to being an employee-owned company in 2014. Another milestone transition occurred in 1995, when the company began brewing its own beer. It has since won more than 100 medals from national and regional competitions including seven medals at the 20th Annual North American Beer Awards and two gold awards at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival.
Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee
12 units A fine-dining staple in the J. Alexander’s Holdings portfolio, Redlands Grill is the natural evolution to which existing J. Alexander’s restaurants have transitioned. The company expects another two to four Redlands Grill units to open by the end of this year.
Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern
Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio
24 units A sister company within the Cameron Mitchell Restaurants group, Rusty Bucket calls itself a casual-dining experience, but there’s an executive chef leading made-from-scratch menus in every location. And true to its tavern vibe, there’s a stellar beverage program with craft cocktails and signature spirits and beer. Within five years the company anticipates growing to 40 locations.
41 units One of the brands that corporate parent Darden Restaurants has identified as a growth vehicle, Seasons 52 succeeds in presenting a fresh, handcrafted, and upscale dining experience that is easily perceived by guests to be analogous to a chef-owned independent concept. Same-restaurant sales increased 4.7 percent in the fiscal year that ended May 29, 2016.
Arizona, California, Colorado, Texas
20 units There’s a whole new meaning for “green eggs and ham,” thanks to the commitment this breakfast-centric concept has made to sustainable practices. Not only is Snooze focused on operating in the greenest fashion possible, it also brings a decidedly chef-driven focus to the menu. Read more about Snooze here.
New York City
Major cities in seven states, the District of Columbia, Canada, and Europe
15 units Located in major cities around the world, the concept originates from the ONE Group, which owns eight of the units and manages or is a licensee for the remainder. The average check at this upscale restaurant and lounge concept is $111, and beverage sales represent 39 percent of revenues. Additional units are slated to open soon in Austin, Boston, Dallas, and San Diego, with plans to open two to three locations per year across 50 major metropolitan areas around the world.
Stoney River Steakhouse
Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee
12 units Beef accounts for 70 percent of sales at Stoney River, which is perhaps why the average check hits $44 per person, significantly higher than its sister concepts in the J. Alexander’s Holding group, where the average check hovers at $30.
18 units The mid-market concept within the Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, Sullivan’s is the brand that’s dotted the map from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Anchorage, Alaska. Its average check of $64 seems modest alongside that of sister concept Double Eagle Steak House, especially given Sullivan’s posh white tablecloth setting and progressive menu offerings. A tepid start to the year—one unit closed and first-quarter sales came in about 6 percent lower than in 2016—caused little concern, as the slump was a reflection of temporary closings that resulted in the loss of eight operating weeks.
The Greene Turtle
Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia
46 units For this brand, winning the restaurant race is all about steady (but you can forget any mention of slow). Since investment firm Stone-Goff Partners laid claim to The Greene Turtle in October 2015, annual company sales have grown to $125 million. The brand, which is roughly 25 percent company-owned and 75 percent franchised units, plans to open two additional units this year. In April, The Greene Turtle announced its partnership with the Sea Turtle Conservancy, cementing its commitment to help protect different species of sea turtles and donating proceeds from its signature cocktail, Hell in the Shell, made with Naked Turtle White Rum.
Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Washington
14 units With a menu of scratch-made Mexican cuisine and an assortment of tequilas, the Matador rakes in an average of $3 million per unit and is continuing the development of new markets across the five states in which it operates.
Thirsty Lion Gastropub & Grill
Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Texas
8 units Launched in 2006, the Thirsty Lion Gastropub & Grill takes its name to heart, offering guests made-from-scratch fare in a lively environment and serving cocktails with a thick, solid ice block that melts slowly and prevents your next Old Fashioned from being watered down. “Our definition of a gastropub is high-quality food in a public house environment without pretension,” says CEO John Plew.
With a core menu of about 65 items, the restaurant prepares everything fresh and offers some regional items as well as a seasonal menu that changes four times per year. That approach extends to its beverage lineup as well, so the gastropub fills its draft lines with local and regional beer. Thirsty Lion averages $5.8 million in annual revenue at each location and brings in 35 percent of sales through its beverage and bar program, while food sales account for the remaining 65 percent.
The company now has eight units in Oregon, Arizona, and Colorado, with plans for aggressive expansion over the next several years. Plew says Thirsty Lion will have nine units by the end of 2017—including its first Texas location, and will then grow its unit count each year to reach 21 units by the end of 2020. This growth will include new markets, such as Florida, Texas, and the East Coast, and some backfilling of existing markets in Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona.
True Food Kitchen
Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia
20 units Long before the restaurant industry had embraced all things raw and healthy, Sam Fox opened the first True Food Kitchen in 2008. Even today, it remains a progressive concept (albeit in an increasingly growing niche of health-conscious chef-driven cuisine) and the menu is rooted in the principles of Dr. Andrew Weil’s anti-inflammatory diet with an emphasis on wholesome, simple ingredients. The brand now has a presence in 10 states, from California to Florida to New Jersey.
Tupelo Honey Cafe
Asheville, North Carolina
Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia
15 units Scratch-made Southern comfort food with chef-driven flair is the basis for the menu, but the whole experience conveys the culture and hospitality of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The brand’s commitment to local farmers travels with it to each new location and the company exercises due diligence to source from the best regional farms and suppliers.
Wild Wing Cafe
Charlotte, North Carolina
Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia
42 units Food and beverage rock at this casual-dining enclave, where music holds center stage and entertainment plays nightly. Band competitions are as locally and regionally sourced as the craft beer list, and it all adds up to strong growth for Axum Capital Partners, which purchased the company in 2012. By year-end, the company plans to open another five locations and add 30 more within the next three to five years. Currently, 17 locations are company-owned and 25 are franchised.
Zea Rotisserie & Bar
Greater New Orleans
8 units Started in 1997 by three New Orleans chefs inspired by rotisserie cooking in European food markets, Zea has shown no signs of getting stuck in its ways. The restaurant is undergoing a redesign with new units showcasing updated looks and a focus on bar service.
Zinburger Wine & Burger Bar
Livingston, New Jersey
Arizona, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Virginia
18 units Fox Restaurant Concepts of Phoenix introduced the Zinburger concept and has five locations in Arizona. The Briad Group (Livingston, New Jersey) saw the success of the brand, and Sam Fox sold Briad a license to develop the restaurants east of the Mississippi. About a year ago, Fox sold the brand to The Briad Group, but kept the locations in Arizona in his portfolio. The Briad Group is now the owner and will be expanding to the tune of about five new stores a year. Three additional units are slated to open this year in Maryland, New Jersey, and New York.