CHICAGO — At the epicenter of restaurant industry innovation and growth are fast-casual concepts with unique positioning and a focus on quality ingredients.
Lauren Hallow, associate editor of concept analysis at Technomic, Inc., Chicago and Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, discussed emerging restaurant concepts during a presentation for restaurant operators attending Technomic’s Restaurants Trends & Directions Conference on June 24 in Chicago.
“If you’re an operator, look at things brands are doing differently and figure out how to bring higher level and quality to the service,” Tristano said. “Building a culture and supporting your community not only brings up your brand locally, but also improves the way people look at the restaurant industry in general.”
Common themes among the 12 restaurants highlighted in the presentation were sustainability, local sourcing and community involvement.
“It’s really important for operators to establish a place in the community,” Hallow said. “Customers really want to see you as a neighborhood restaurant and not just a chain.”
Cava Mezze Grill
The dish: A Mediterranean grill with eight units in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.
Why it’s poised for growth: Touting “traditional Greek and Mediterranean cooking in a casual modern setting,” Cava prepares customizable salads, rice bowls and pitas with such flavorful toppings as jalepeño-infused feta, harissa and spicy lamb meatballs. The chain sources local ingredients and partners with nonprofits in Washington, DC.
The dish: A neighborhood-style pizza shop with 12 units in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.
Why it’s poised for growth: Specializing in gourmet oval-shaped pies with inventive flavor combinations, &pizza is dedicated to the communities it serves by partnering with local causes and donating pizzas to those in need.
A signature pizza is Moonstruck, topped with mushroom truffle, roasted wild mushroom blend, crumbled goat cheese, fig marsala, red pepper chili oil and cracked black pepper.
4 Rivers Smokehouse
The dish: A down-home barbecue joint with nine units in Florida.
Why it’s poised for growth: With communal tables and a bakery counter, 4 Rivers specializes in signature brisket and such Southern comfort fare as pulled pork and fried okra. The faith-minded, family-owned business is rooted in ministry and community support.
“Giving back to the community we are seeing as a very strong trend with our hot concepts,” Tristano said. “We expect strong growth out of this concept.”
The dish: A Boston-based fast-casual chain with six units in Massachusetts.
Why it’s poised for growth: Transparency and technology are top themes at this self-described food lab, which has no back-of-house or freezers and uses an iPod app instead of a traditional point-of-sale system. There are also digital menu boards that display approximate wait times.
“When consumers walk in, they can really see everything is prepared fresh to order,” Hallow said.
The dish: A fast-casual taco concept with three units in Texas and Illinois and one coming soon.
Why it’s poised for growth: With late-night hours and a lively atmosphere, this eclectic restaurant specializes in nontraditional taco varieties and house-made tortillas. Another unique feature of the restaurant is the “back door chicken,” which Hallow described as “a cross between a secret menu and a speakeasy type meal.”
The dish: An elevated bar concept with 14 units in California, Texas and the state of Washington.
Why it’s poised for growth: With rustic yet contemporary décor and premium menu items, Eureka! is raising the bar on standard pub fare. The restaurant sources local ingredients and coffee, as well as local entertainment Menu items include a bone marrow burger and Osso Buco riblets.
“It’s all about quality and craftsmanship,” Tristano said.
The dish: An upscale breakfast and brunch restaurant with six units in North Carolina.
Why it’s poised for growth: Formerly known as Toast Café, this concept has no fryers or freezers and uses organic ingredients and local produce.
“What they’re focused on is an upscale, more sophisticated breakfast,” Tristano said. “It’s higher-end, polished and more brunch-oriented.”
The restaurant also takes a team-based approach to table service, with the tagline “Where every server is your server.”
Ted’s Bulletin Family Restaurant
The dish: A modern diner with five units in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC.
Why it’s poised for growth: A classic diner with contemporary touches, Ted’s Bulletin serves all-day breakfast and family-style specials, such as fried chicken or house-roasted prime rib. With art deco décor and old-school projectors playing classic cartoons, the restaurant is family-friendly but positioned to the adult crowd, Hallow said.
The dish: A trendy bar with five units in Michigan and Indiana.
Why it’s poised for growth: With a tagline of “all craft, no crap,” HopCat offers more than 100 local, regional and global brews on tap and “craveable bar fare” like wonton pizza rolls and craft french fries, Hallow said.
Sustainability and community involvement also are focuses of the concept.
Punch Bowl Social
The dish: A retro-inspired “gastro-diner” with four locations in Oregon, Colorado, Texas and Michigan.
Why it’s poised for growth: Featuring classic arcade games and elevated diner-style food like buffalo jalapeño meatloaf, this restaurant and bar is perhaps best known for serving glass bowls of spiked punch and other nostalgic drinks.
“Great food, great drinks and solid entertainment all under one roof, so there’s no need to spend money elsewhere,” Hallow said.