CHICAGO — In the restaurant industry, a concept may be fresh one day and stale the next. Case in point, the very term “fresh” on menus has lost favor to such attributes as “local,” “seasonal” and “sustainable.”
“Going back three years ago, ‘fresh’ was everywhere on the menu; today, it’s starting to evolve to ‘local,’” said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president of Technomic, Inc., during a presentation at Technomic’s Restaurants Trends & Directions Conference held June 18 in Chicago.
Mature and underserved segments are seeing competition from fast-casual upstarts. The fast-casual segment continues to lead industry growth, rising 11% last year as quick-service increased 2.8% and casual dining climbed 2%. However, not all fast-casual concepts are growing, Mr. Tristano noted.
“Some older brands, legacy brands, are declining,” he said.
Rather than overhaul the format or menu, legacy brands like Ponderosa and Sbarro are investing in new concepts to regain share.
“These brands are looking toward the future to figure out what to do next,” he said. “They’re trying to get back in the game and (resonate) with younger consumers.”
In addition to local and sustainable fare, many customers are seeking better-for-you options, Mr. Tristano said. Healthful preparations are propelling successful brands.
“‘Fired’ is going to be much more important,” Mr. Tristano said. “A lot of it comes down to nutrition, the flavor and healthfulness of the product. Brands doing that are the ones that are growing.”
The fastest growing limited-service chains in 2013 were Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, with 33% sales growth, followed by Raising Cane’s (24%), Jersey Mike’s Subs (21%), Wing Stop (20%) and Chipotle (17%). On the full-service side, Chuy’s led the pack at 18%, followed by Yard House (18%), Texas de Brazil (16%), Cheddar’s (14%), and Buffalo Wild Wings (13%).
On the heels of these hot chains comes a wave of cutting-edge concepts poised for strong growth.
During the presentation, Mr. Tristano and Lauren Hallow, associate editor of news and concept analysis for Technomic, identified a dozen upstarts set to capture growth in the mature market.
Spanning limited- and full-service segments, the 12 small chains appeal to consumer desires for inspired cuisine, customization and craftsmanship.
The dish: An Irvine, Calif.-based fast-casual chain with 21 locations and at least 25 on the way.
Why it’s poised for growth: Specializing in fired-to-order pizzas made with from-scratch dough and premium ingredients, Blaze benefits from a growing demand for customization.
“It’s a better-quality product,” Mr. Tristano said. “Consumers are willing to pay more, about $6 to $7 for a pizza.”
Naf Naf Grill
The dish: A Naperville, Ill.-based fast-casual with nine units and four under way.
Why it’s poised for growth: Contemporary, stylish décor, health-focused food and authentic preparations draw diners to this Middle Eastern concept, which specializes in shawarma, falafel and fries.
“It’s mainstream enough for consumers to enjoy it, and as demand increases, we expect quite a bit in terms of the Mediterranean category for growth. In many markets where there are few independents, concepts like this, Zoe’s Kitchen, Little Greek and others (will thrive).”
The dish: A fast-food Southern-style restaurant with 14 locations.
Why it’s poised for growth: Southern hospitality is part of the chain’s mission, reflected in community involvement, including food donations and fundraising for non-profits.
An “eternally cool” ambiance nods to musicians, storytellers, food and the soul of the South. Hand-breaded tenders and handmade dipping sauces also resonate with consumers, Mr. Tristano said.
“This isn’t KFC,” he said. “This is a brand that stands out.”
The dish: A New York City coffee shop with eight locations and plans to expand.
Why it’s poised for growth: This urban-focused concept serves sweet and savory hand pies and cheekily named coffee.
“The pies are very portable,” Mr. Tristano said. “Believe it or not, these are eaten on the run, or on the walk to work. On top of portability, they put a comfort twist on it.”
For example, The Stack includes an Australian-style meat pie encased in a golden puff pastry and topped with mashed potatoes, gravy and peas.
The dish: An artisanal ice cream shop based in Columbus, Ohio, with 16 locations in six markets.
Why it’s poised for growth: “One of the main draws is its super-premium flavors,” Ms. Hallow said. “There are signature options like Salty Caramel and Wildberry Lavender, as well as seasonal flavors.”
Old standards get a twist; the Chocomole flavor includes milk chocolate ice cream mixed with cinnamon, cayenne and bits of corn chips.
Hand-crumbled graham crackers and made-from-scratch caramel add a sweet layer to the Jeni’s story.
The dish: A New York-based juice bar concept with 11 units.
Why it’s poised for growth: Cold-pressed juices made with organic produce and health-focused food options such as grass-fed bison meatballs with quinoa appeal to the upmarket clientele at Equinox luxury fitness centers, where all of the units are located.
“The original juice menu was developed by a chef,” Ms. Hallow said. “The chef-inspired platform is key because patrons are not only paying more attention to what’s on the plate but what goes into their cup as well.”
Paul Martin’s American Grill
The dish: A Roseville, Calif., full-service restaurant with seven locations and one coming soon.
Why it’s poised for growth: “It’s very accessible in terms of price points,” Mr. Tristano said. “It really falls into that polished or upscale casual.”
The menu features familiar products with foodie twists, made with locally sourced and seasonal ingredients. Behind the bar, craft beers and handmade cocktails contribute to a hip, trendy vibe.
Del Frisco’s Grille
The dish: A more relaxed offshoot of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House with 13 locations.
Why it’s poised for growth: “A place to see and be seen,” the polished-casual concept offers relevance and accessibility through moderately priced menu items such as burgers, Mr. Tristano said. Customers may also choose comfort foods with gourmet upgrades, such as cheesesteak eggrolls and veal meatloaf.
The dish: An Anaheim Hills, Calif.-based stepped-up sports bar with seven locations.
Why it’s poised for growth: With more than 100 craft, domestic and imported beers, the chain has beverage chops, but its burger program may be a bigger lure for its base of younger consumers.
“It’s hard to argue with bacon on a burger, but when a brand like Slater’s takes center-cut pork bellies mixed with well-sourced beef, it’s referred to as ‘meat candy.’” Mr. Tristano said. The original 50/50 patty is comprised of half ground bacon and half ground beef. Optional toppings include alligator Andouille, bacon-infused country gravy and IPA beer cheese sauce.
“It’s really appealing not only to men, but to women, too,” Mr. Tristano said. “It’s a very indulgent burger. It’s not trying to be healthy. It’s trying to be a good burger, good beer and ultimately a great experience. They’re going to give Five Guys and Smashburger a run for their money.”
The dish: A Long Beach, Calif.-based neighborhood pub with two locations and one on the way.
Why it’s poised for growth: The concept is designed around gourmet food and craft beer, Ms. Hallow said. Tourists and locals alike may eat such inspired creations as an octopus salad bruschetta or a charred broccoli rabe pizza while seated at communal tables in a gastropub setting.
Max’s Wine Dive
The dish: A Houston-based wine bar with eight units and one coming soon.
Why it’s poised for growth: Don’t call it a chain, Ms. Hallow said.
“To them, a chain evokes sameness, fatigue, commonality,” she said. “It offers the best aspects of a chain and an independent.”
Menus include both classic items found at all of Max’s locations as well as dishes unique to a particular unit.
“That universal yet unique menu ensures consumers will find something familiar at any location, but foodies who may be turned off by chains can experience the local food scene,” Ms. Hallow said.
An additional draw is the unpretentious atmosphere, complete with jukeboxes and t-shirted servers, as well as a “fried chicken and champagne… why the (heck) not?” mantra, Ms. Hallow added.
“Max’s is trying to change the wine bar segment by making wine more approachable,” she said.
Snooze, an A.M. Eatery
The dish: A Denver breakfast and lunch restaurant with nine locations.
Why it’s poised for growth: “Superior menu options and an eco-friendly mindset takes the a.m. eatery concept up a notch,” Ms. Hallow said.
Each unit composts and recycles more than 90% of its waste.“One of the main reasons for its success is its superior breakfast and brunch options … with cage-free eggs and local ingredients,” Ms. Hallow said. The menu includes breakfast tacos, breakfast potpies, strawberry-rhubarb pie pancakes, and house-made granola with local yogurt.