12 High-Performing Restaurant Chains to Watch
A few months back, we took a look at some emerging chains and ranked them by average unit volume. AUV is a great metric for growing brands to understand how new units are performing given that it comes from traffic and ticket. The idea being that if AUV growth outpaces same-store sales gains, you can, typically, deduce that new stores are more profitable than existing ones. This time, we picked 12 brands and sorted them by total company sales (AUV is included as well).
Sales are often defined as income accrued from the selling of goods and/or services over a given period, as this article explains. A company’s total sales during said period, typically a quarter for a restaurant brand, equal units sold, or sales volume, multiplied by unit price. Revenue, for comparison, is defined as the total income of a business or the total amount of money made from an investment, broken down into gross revenue and net revenue. Some experts say sales are the leading indicator for most companies since those organizations whose sole revenue comes from sales tend to have especially sales-focused corporate cultures.
However you look at it, there are many ways to judge the health and potential of a restaurant company. Here are 12 brands getting it done. Pictured is Firebirds Wood Fired Grill.
FOOTNOTE: Sources for the data include company reports, SEC filings, and industry research. Estimates (*) are associated with privately held companies that don’t release sales figures.
Number of locations: 44
Total company sales (millions): $166*
Average unit volume (millions): $3.63
Black Angus really runs the gamut of diversified expansion, with restaurants in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Washington. Across that varied spectrum, however, the chain, established in 1964, continues to thrive thanks to a consistent commitment to quality and nose for evolution. Black Angus delivers in select locations and has a Prime Club loyalty program that offers free steak dinners on a guest’s birthday. There’s half-price wine Wednesday. Also, it’s hard to beat the taglines: “It takes 50 years to cook a perfect steak,” and “Here’s to the nights you can’t remember and the steaks you won’t forget.” As for the steaks, all cuts are aged at least 21 days and then flame grilled. In April, the chain hired Liz Geavaras as chief marketing officer. Geavaras joined Black Angus Steakhouse from Grill Concepts, Inc., and is spearheading Black Angus’ culinary direction on both food and beverage, along with marketing.
Number of locations: 45
Total company sales (millions): $144
Average unit volume (millions): $3.7
When the culinary-focused Firebirds opened its 44th location this past fall in Jacksonville, Florida, it unveiled a fresh prototype for the future. The location was Firebirds’ first new design in 12 years. The concept, founded at the turn of the millennium in Charlotte, North Carolina, debuted a restaurant built to showcase its signature traits, all the while moving Firebirds boldly forward. Inspired by fire and smoking firewood—the visual and flavorful heart of the concept (wood-fired grill)—the changes start with an open façade featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and warm, contemporary materials. Inside, guests’ see the iconic FIREBAR emerge right as they walk in, compared to the right placement in legacy stores. The dining room also features sightlines from every angle right to the open kitchen. Read more about the changes here. Overall, the idea was to contemporize Firebirds as it continues to expand, and also to design a restaurant that brings attention to what makes the brand special. With Chef Steven Sturm at the helm, Firebirds is far from your average casual concept when it comes to elevated fare. Firebirds also 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 company has raised more than $200,000 annually for pediatric cancer research and the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, selling freshly squeezed lemonade year-round, with proceeds going to the foundation.
Number of locations: 32
Total company sales (millions): $140*
Average unit volume (millions): $3.9*
Granite City retracted a bit in 2017. The chain announced in November that it closed four Midwest locations: Granite City in East Wichita, Kansas, Granite City in West Wichita, Kansas, Granite City in Madison, Wisconsin, and Cadillac Ranch/Bartini in Indianapolis, Indiana. The decision was made, CEO Dick Lynch said, with the future in mind. “Given the lease structure of each location along with their individual business performance, we weighed numerous options for keeping these locations operational before arriving at this decision,” Lynch said at the time. “Ultimately, we feel these closures represent the most prudent fiscal option for our company and are in line with our vision for the future of the company.”
Granite started in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in June 2009 and has grown to 32 restaurants in 13 states. It holds a strong place in the accelerating craft-beer culture in America, featuring an on-site brewery guests can see from the main dining and bar areas. The polished casual cuisine is cooked in an open kitchen and the signature brews—all made on-site—are available in growlers. Granite has a patented brewing process known as Fermentus Interruptus, which it says makes replicating the products simple and efficient throughout all restaurants. Signature brews include: The Duke (Pale Ale), The Bennie (Bock), The Batch 1000 (Double IPA), The Northern (American Style Light Lager) and The Stout.
Number of locations: 44
Total company sales (millions): $125*
Average unit volume (millions): $2.8*
Wild Wing Cafe, purchased by Axum Capital Partners in 2012, has opened two locations since the summer and just debuted a restaurant March 8 in Johns Creek, Georgia. The plan calls for 30 additional units within the next 3–5 years. The brand has a strong Southeast footprint, with stores in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. There’s a unit in Katy, Texas, as well. The majority (26) of the restaurants are located in Georgia and South Carolina. There are lone stores in Florida, Alabama, and New Jersey, in addition to Texas (there are just two in Virginia), showing that future growth could be an interesting track to follow. Will the brand build out these markets or continue to spread out? A strong food and beverage program anchored by nightly entertainment, including band competitions, has proven effective across different audiences. The 33 wing flavors don’t hurt, either.
Number of locations: 48
Total company sales (millions): $125
Average unit volume (millions): $2.74
The Maryland-born brand is on the cusp of major growth. In September, the chain announced a 10-unit agreement in North New Jersey and Northeast Pennsylvania with investor group Jai Somnath, LLC. The Green Turtle entered New Jersey and Pennsylvania for the first time in 2017, including its first casino location. There are more than 50 additional units in Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania already in the planning stages. The concept was founded in 1976 and is a branding machine. Greene Turtle restaurants enjoy strong sales of high-margin beverages, incremental revenues via sales of branded merchandise, and the benefits of lasting bonds created by regular community outreach, the company said. There are Greene Turtle-branded and turtle-themed beverages, as well as an interactive rewards app that offers mobile and online ordering. The chain said it’s looking to expand in Pittsburgh, Western Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and New England. Last April, The Greene Turtle also 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.
Number of locations: 40
Total company sales (millions): $119
Average unit volume (millions): $3.1
It’s nice having this fact to rest on: Consumer Reports has named Abuelo’s the No. 1 Mexican Restaurant in the U.S. every year since 2006. Based in Lubbock, Texas, Abuelo’s has 13 restaurants in the Lone Star State. There are units in Arizona, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Indiana, Virginia, and Kansas as well. The first Abuelo’s opened in Amarillo, Texas, in 1989, and has been renowned for its open-air courtyard and made-from-scratch cuisine inspired by Chef Luis Sanchez’s family recipes ever since. But growth was a bit slow out the gate and in recent years. Within the first decade, the company had 10 restaurants across Texas and Oklahoma. Robert Lin, the president of Food Concepts International (parent company of Abuelo’s) joined in 2002 when he was asked by his uncle and founding partner James Young to help grow the business. He left a job at Merrill Lynch and, by 2006, the chain had reached 37 locations. A recession-induced pause in growth lasted from 2007 until 2014. Now, the brand is growing at a rate of two to three stores per year—all company owned. Plans for recently constructed restaurants encompass approximately 7,600 square feet of interior space with the kitchen accounting for about a third. That still leaves room for indoor seating for 250 guests and bar space. Abuelo’s has seven regional partners, each responsible for quality control at four to eight units. It also employs corporate culinary specialists.
Number of locations: 22
Total company sales (millions): $116*
Average unit volume (millions): $5.5*
Il Fornaio has the benefit of being fueled by Roark Capital. The private-equity firm purchased the brand in 2011, and remains one of the restaurant industry’s top players in the growth space. It recently backed Arby’s $2.9 billion purchase of Buffalo Wild Wings and features a portfolio that also includes Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, CKE Restaurants (parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s), Corner Bakery, FOCUS Brands (Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, Carvel Ice Cream, Cinnabon, McAlister’s Deli, Moe’s Southwest Grill, and Schlotzsky’s), Jimmy John’s, Miller’s Ale House, and Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill. The Il Fornaio baking school was established in Barlassina, Italy, in 1972, and the first retail bakery opened in 1975. San Francisco and Beverly Hills debuted the bakeries stateside in 1981, and in 1984, Williams-Sonoma divested the concept in preparation for its IPO. Larry Mindel acquired the concept with partners Howard Lester, Warren Hellman, and Scott Hendrick two years later and the first full-service Il Fornaio Cucina Italiana restaurant opened in Corte Madera, California in 1987. Two additional stores arrived two years later and the expansion was on.
There are now restaurants in California (17), Colorado, Washington, and Las Vegas. Against the chain formula, each restaurant is designed specific to the community and hours, menus, and reservation sizes differ by locale. The restaurants organize special events ranging from beer tastings to cooking classes to tastings in every city. Executive Chef Maurizio Mazzon supervises each kitchen and its menu featuring ingredients straight from Italy. The loyalty program used to be solely paper-based, with members carrying around a paper “Passoporto,” but in July 2015 Il Fornaio introduced a digital Passoporto as part of its mobile app. Since then, membership in the Festa Regionale program has increased by 35 percent.
Number of locations: 30
Total company sales (millions): $100*
Average unit volume (millions): $3.8*
Founded in 1999 by Papa Lou, the community-driven brand has expanded to four states—North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia. Exactly half of the locations are in the Tar Heel State. Eight are in South Carolina. There are four in Florida and one each in the other states. 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. Each location features a large selection of draft beer (the Virginia unit has 72 on tap) and showcases local offerings as well as extensive bottle options and cocktails. Local sports memorabilia and wall-to-wall high-definition TVs are a staple of the décor. A key to Carolina Ale House’s personality is its philanthropy. Between sports team sponsorships, Dining for a Cause nights, high school and college alum sponsorships, and donation requests, each restaurant is required to play a strong role in its community, helping shed the chain feel and embed the concept into the market for long-term growth.
Number of locations: 39
Total company sales (millions): $100
Average unit volume (millions): $3
Consolidated Restaurant Operations, parent of Cantina Laredo, also runs El Chico, Black Oak Grill, Cool River, Silver Fox, Good Eats, Lucky's, and IIIForks. The company has a flair for international growth, with units in the U.K., UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. With Cantina Laredo, the Dallas-based brand born in 1984, CRO wants to ratchet up overseas expansion, especially from a franchising perspective. In late January, CRO announced the opening of its location in The Mall of San Juan in Puerto Rico. This was the chain’s first opportunity to serve Caribbean diners. There are international stores in London, Abu Dhabi, Turkey, and Qatar. Cantina Laredo said it expects to open nine restaurants in 2018. Cantina Laredo offers 20 gluten-free items on its menu and features an increasing number of tapas in an effort to attract younger diners. Gift cards and an e-club are a big part of its ability to connect with guests as well. Currently, the brand is spread across 16 U.S. states (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas). Cantina Laredo is a nimble concept as well. There are three airport locations in Dallas, one in Pennsylvania, and one at LAX in California.
Number of locations: 44
Total company sales (millions): $98*
Average unit volume (millions): $2.38
Bareburger has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the better-burger segment since Euripides Pelekanos started an organic and all-natural restaurant out of a vacant bakery in Astoria, Queens, nine years ago. Within six years, the brand, showcasing all-natural ingredients free of hormones, pesticides, and unsavory additives expanded to 30 locations. It has kept that momentum going. Its most recent location was a Dubai opening, which gave Bareburger six international locations—three in UAE, two in Japan, and one in Germany. The concept recently made headlines for announcing that it would start serving the Beyond Burger in all 38 of its U.S. locations. Bareburger is even launching an all-vegan restaurant in New York City later this year, helmed by chef and former musician Rudy Ramos. Bareburger has mostly kept its U.S. growth close to New York, with 26 locations in its home state. There are four in New Jersey, two in Connecticut, and two in Ohio. There’s a single store in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. as well. Don’t expect that expansion to slow down anytime soon.
Number of locations: 27
Total company sales (millions): $75*
Average unit volume (millions): $3*
The Charlotte, North Carolina-based concept, founded in 1997, touts itself as much more than your average sports bar. ESPN named Hickory Tavern runner-up for the Best Sports Bar in North America and The Bleacher Report called it the Best Sports Bar in Charlotte. Where it really stands out is menu innovation and upscale offerings alongside the 60 big-screen TVs and projectors in each restaurant. Hickory Tavern features a kids’ menu with nine entrées, including a chicken & cheese quesadilla and pasta. Each order comes with a package of Oreos as well. A lightning lunch menu and diverse dinner offering with BYO Salads, signature salads, and an extensive array of sides and specialties, including Oregon Cedar Salmon, help Hickory Tavern cancel the veto vote so many sports bar succumb to, especially in regards to families. Of course, the craft cocktail and beer program at each unit is robust, as is the community vibe it builds through Spirit Day fundraisers and other sponsorships. Hickory Tavern also offers 50 percent to veterans on Veterans Day and is in the process of creating its own foundation. Currently, locations outside of North Carolina include Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina.
Number of locations: 23
Total company sales (millions): $63
Average unit volume (millions): $2.6
The growing concept from renowned operator Cameron Mitchell Restaurants launched online ordering at all of its restaurants in February. This furthers the brand’s digital prowess. Rusty Bucket offers e-gift cards and allows guests to instantly send a gift card in any amount from $5–$100 by email. They can be printed out or redeemed via mobile device at any location. Guests can also reserve for parties of seven or more and add parties of six or fewer to the waitlist through OpenTable at select locations. Additionally, Rusty Bucket is currently testing delivery at all of its restaurants. Rusty Bucket is a sister company within Cameron Mitchell’s celebrated group of restaurants, which includes Ocean Prime. A team of executive chefs directs the from-scratch menus at Rusty Bucket. Daily Blue Plates are a hit and include comfort-food options such as Shrimp Scampi and Beef Stroganoff. 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. Fifteen of the locations are in Ohio. Four are located in Michigan. Colorado, Indiana, Florida, and North Carolina each have one.