Zak Gruber

Chef Tory Miller may have opened his last restaurant, but he’s nowhere near slowing down.

A Bright Future Ahead for Independents

Single-unit operators continue to pop up around the country.

I’m going to bet the first place every reader goes in this issue is page 40, our story on the Top 100 Independent Operators. Everyone wants to see who’s on the list, and who’s not.

Then there’s the next obvious question: Why state capitals? Because that ensures we recognize leading independent operators in small and mid-size cities throughout the country—something we endeavor to do throughout the year, but especially in our annual tribute to Top 100 Indies.

Peruse the “Declaration of Independents” story and you’ll see that only a handful of state capitals are among the largest MSAs or established foodie destinations. Instead, most of the capitals fall into the category of small to mid-size cities, albeit with a vibrant demand for full-service restaurants—if not from permanent residents, certainly from the influx of government activity.

What I like most about looking beyond the biggest cities and best-known dining destinations is that we discover operators we might never have met otherwise. Like Dennis Forbes, who owns two restaurants in Dover, Delaware: Cool Springs Fish Bar, which he opened on New Year’s Eve 1999, and the more casual burger and craft beer bar, Restaurant 55, which he opened with his daughter in 2010. And then we find restaurants in Boise, Idaho, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, each of which is tallying annual sales over $6 million.

As a point of reference—since our selection is not based on sales as much as on the restaurant’s overall story—the majority of operators included in this Top 100 list have annual sales between $1 million and $3 million, which seems to be the industry average for leading Indie restaurants. Of course, we don’t exclude restaurants with big numbers, and you’ll see a few with sales topping $10 million.

If you look past sales at growth in the industry, the future appears bright for Indies. Last month the National Restaurant Association released a report on the number of restaurants added in 2015, a net count of 9,877 establishments of which 2,916 were full-service. As a general rule, the NRA and industry analysts also estimate that seven in 10 restaurants are single-unit operators—or stated another way, roughly 70 percent of the industry is made up of independent operators. Certainly the circulation counts of our magazine reinforce that premise. From that, might one infer the industry added as many as 2,000 new independent restaurants last year?

While this marks the second year that our July issue has been a salute to the entrepreneurial spirit and superior hospitality of independent operators, featuring Indies in FSR has been a priority since day one. The best part is the relationships built along the way: Like Bridge House Tavern in Chicago, featured in our March 2013 issue on top outdoor dining spots, and the site of our company’s annual NRA party for three years running.