Growing up, one of my few restaurant jobs was hosting at the local Olive Garden. It was brief. Not as brief as the first time I’d tried restaurant work—I spent one evening training as a host at Outback when I was 16 and quickly returned to retail. For a quiet introvert, the restaurant environment was disorienting. Everyone was yelling “Corner!” and “Behind!” and I just wanted to hide in the corner or behind something. But a few years later, I bucked up a bit and managed to spend a cumulative eight months doling out Hospitaliano.

Ultimately, though, I concluded that working in the restaurant industry wasn’t for me, despite my obsession with food. Instead, I stuck with newspapers and somehow found the heat of the bullpen to be my kind of chaos for a while. I can remember long nights at the newspaper covering divisive politics, writing fast and furious copy on deadline, and avoiding the comments section on the website—as well as the local blogs, which featured photos of me covering council meetings way more than was relevant or necessary. My 15 minutes of very unwanted fame.

I later decided that chaos in general wasn’t really for me at all. Magazines are much quieter places, and I’m lucky to work for one that is dedicated to telling stories about an industry I admire (from afar, away from the heat of the kitchen). But to realize all that—and any of what was right for me—I had to grow, and it wasn’t easy.

For the restaurants on the FSR 50 this year, it’s all about growth. And to get to where they are, these brands had to be rock solid in who they were and what they were doing in order to replicate even once, let alone 20, 30, 40, or 50 times. These brands are growing in more than just unit numbers; they’re evolving their business models to meet changing customer demands. That is something else all of our 50 have in common this year. Look for a new set of icons on the list that tell you which brands are adopting new strategies, like smart tech and loyalty programs, to keep growing strong.

This year’s 50 also marks FSR’s commitment to covering the stories of emerging brands—some of the top leaders of innovation in the industry. I encourage you to share your brand’s growth stories with us on social media or through a quick email directly to me so that we make sure your work is seen and heard by your peers.

Expert Takes, Feature