The NextGen 25 for 2023
Growth goals, dining experiences, and menus may vary, but the following NextGen Casuals are ready to take full service by storm.
The NextGen Casual movement continues to gain steam. Offering chef-inspired menus, one-of-a-kind dining experiences, stylish yet localized environs, and elevated service, the brands in this year’s NextGen Casual report have the drive to go far.
Some are pursuing franchise opportunities, others are attracting the notice of investors, and still others remain firmly corporate in their expansion efforts. No matter the method, pace, or long-term goals, the following restaurants are poised to grow strong.
Yavonne Sarber has always had a talent for taking care of people, so a career in hospitality seemed a natural direction to take—but her journey to creating and scaling Agave & Rye to 16 locations, plus launching a myriad of other concepts under EPIC Brands, took an untraditional route.
HQ: Covington, Kentucky
The Sicilian Butcher
The NextGen Casual space has taco, New American, and eatertainment concepts aplenty, but Italian cuisine has remained largely untouched—and Savory Fund spies an opportunity in that. In October, the private equity firm purchased a majority stake in The Sicilian Butcher, a three-unit Arizona concept serving scratch-made Italian eats. Under this deal, Savory Fund will invest up to $30 million in the brand and its on-site spin-off, The Sicilian Baker.
HQ: Scottsdale, Arizona
Five Iron Golf
The eatertainment sector has no shortage of golf-centric concepts, but generally they cater to either fun-seeking amateurs or more seasoned—and serious—players. Five Iron Golf offers the best of both worlds, thanks to state-of-the-art 3D simulation technology, an expansive menu whose options vary by location, and perks like towel service and showers, as well as event spaces and other games, including ping pong and shuffleboard. And unlike many competitors, Five Iron’s indoor setup helps it move into bustling cities like Chicago, Boston, and D.C.
HQ: St. Louis
As one of the few NextGen Casuals established and led by a woman, THRōW Social offers a fresh take on the eatertainment status quo, thanks to its “Palm Beach–chic” style and tropical-inspired cocktails, tacos, and sliders. In January 2022, founder Ginger Flesher-Sonnier debuted a second location in Florida, far from the D.C. original. Following the Delray Beach unit’s immediate popularity, Flesher-Sonnier will continue to seek expansion opportunities in the Sunshine State and Southeast.
HQ: Washington, D.C.
Turning Point Restaurants
This month marks a year since the New Jersey–based breakfast, lunch, and brunch concept reached a turning point of its own, inking its first-ever franchising deal in the brand’s two dozen years of operation. Turning Point Restaurants started flexing its growth muscles back in 2019, when private equity firm NewSpring Capital, which owns Duck Donuts, invested in the brand and set up a franchise-based fund. But even as Turning Point embarks on a new chapter, its founder, Kirk Ruoff, remains at the helm as CEO.
HQ: Eatontown, New Jersey
Originally founded as Red Arrow Tap Room, Tapville Social reports lower prime costs than competitors, thanks to a streamlined system of self-pour taps, table-top ordering, and fast throughput. These wide margins have fueled rapid growth, and the tech-forward, pub-grub brand has plans to open 10 brick-and-mortars this year, plus 24 more in 2024. Also on deck are 16 mobile taprooms, whose modern locations in shopping centers and airports would allow customers to take their beverages off-premises within the facility.
HQ: Naperville, Illinois
In Austin, Texas, Picnik combines wholesome ingredients and an expansive menu to satisfy a variety of flavor palates and specialty diets, from gluten-free to vegan to paleo. The better-for-you restaurant started as a shipping container–turned–food trailer a decade ago and has since expanded to include two brick-and-mortar restaurants that also serve weekend brunch. Now it’s setting its sights beyond the home market with an eye trained on Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas; Denver; and Nashville, Tennessee.
HQ: Austin, Texas
Channeling the spirit of walk-on athletes, the Louisiana-based sports grill finds success through adaptability and seizing opportunities. At present, that means continually innovating new store prototypes (including its newest model, the 6,000-square-foot Wildcat) to ensure the chain’s growth in a shifting real estate market. This year, the focus is expanding to its technological infrastructure, as Walk-On’s partners with Lunchbox and Toast to upgrade its online ordering platform, guest loyalty program, and POS management system.
HQ: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Rib & Chop House
In an increasingly crowded field of loyalty programs, Rib & Chop House might be king. Last year, the Montana-based concept unveiled a Royalty Card, a monthly subscription program that targets frequent, high-spending guests and offers perks like priority seating and $600 worth of gift cards annually. In terms of footprint, Rib & Chop House recently launched a franchising program that will target smaller markets and feature a slimmer prototype.
HQ: Bozeman, Montana
Keke’s Breakfast Café
For 22 years, Keke’s Breakfast Café expanded its Florida footprint through steady, sustainable growth. Now, the brand is ready to blast into hyperdrive following its $82.5 million acquisition by Denny’s last summer.
HQ: Orlando, Florida
Clark Crew BBQ
While a number of restaurants can trace their origins to a smaller operation—pop-up, food truck, carryout-only—few started as a competitive team. But that was the case for Travis Clark, who after attending a barbecue competition in 2012, decided he could do better. Over the next few years, Clark and his crew swept the scene, racking up victory after victory at various barbecue championships.
HQ: Oklahoma City
Although FB Society’s oenophilic restaurant continues to saturate its Texas home turf, Sixty Vines is preparing to plant flags along the mid-Atlantic, with forthcoming locations in Northern Virginia, D.C., and Charlotte, North Carolina. True to its name, each location boasts 60 wines on tap, which allows for a variety of pour sizes, no oxidation, and lower price points. The concept also partners with different vineyards as part of its winemaker series.
Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza & Wings
Florida-based Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza & Wings had already expanded into eight states before fast casual BurgerFi purchased the chain for $156.6 million in late 2021. By last November, Anthony’s had inked its first-ever franchising deal, with existing BurgerFi operator, NDM Hospitality. The first store, slated to open this spring, will be a co-branded location and more franchised locations—both with existing BurgerFi operators and new partners—are expected to follow.
HQ: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Sports & Social
As more eatertainment concepts pop up, Sports & Social is separating itself from the pack on multiple fronts. The scratch-made menu, created by James Beard nominee John Suley, has a decidedly chef-forward pedigree, and each location sports a singular vibe, courtesy of such high-profile design firms as ICRAVE. But the most notable point of differentiation is parent company Live Dining & Entertainment Districts’ partnership with fantasy sports gaming platform, DraftKings. In December, DraftKings Sports & Social debuted, bringing an even more interactive component to the Sports & Social experience.
JINYA Ramen Bar
Although parent company JINYA Holdings continues creating fresh concepts—including LBD Japanese Bar & Lounge, which debuted last fall—the company remains dedicated to its full-service flagship brand. JINYA Ramen Bar closed out 2022 with launches in a handful of new markets, bringing the unit count up to 50. Meanwhile, it’s discovered a new platform to engage with fans, namely an online retail site with branded hoodies and hats, as well as e-gift cards.
HQ: Burbank, California
Chicken N Pickle
Chicken N Pickle not only spotlights the wildly popular game of pickleball, it also cultivates a community feel through its dedication to local sourcing and versatile layout. In fact, a new prototype will feature a town square–inspired design, opening up opportunities for concerts, watch parties, ice skating, and more. The first location sporting the new model is slated to open in St. Charles, Missouri, late this year; 2023 will also see the brand enter two new markets, Nevada and Arizona, and open a fourth Texas outpost.
HQ: North Kansas City, Missouri
True Food Kitchen
With investments from the likes of Oprah and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, True Food Kitchen’s influence has long surpassed its store count—but the latter could soon catch up. In September, the concept closed a $100 million-plus funding round, which will help fuel growth, both of the original True Food Kitchen and a yet unnamed fast casual. The wellness-focused food chain recently named John Williams as new CEO in March, succeeding former chief executive Christine Barone.
Tom’s Watch Bar
In place of putt-putt, cornhole, and the usual trappings of eatertainment restaurants, Tom’s Watch Bar delivers on an immersive, digital experience. Each location features an oversized stadium screen plus 360-degree viewing rooms, chock full of multiple televisions. The brand has taken pains to cement this positioning, even going as far as changing its original name, Tom’s Urban, in 2019.
Another Broken Egg Cafe
Fresh off a banner year, the better-breakfast concept hit the ground running in 2023 with the goal of hitting a triple-digit unit count by year-end. Another Broken Egg boasts the largest actively franchising system in the brunch category and entered the new year with more than a dozen stores in development, plus 20 signed leases and eight new franchise partners. And through its “New South” design, which debuted last May, the brand hopes to double down on its bar program.
HQ: Orlando, Florida
Fogo de Chão
In late 2021, Fogo de Chão was flirting with the idea of another IPO (the Brazilian steakhouse was publicly traded from 2015 to 2018). Although Fogo de Chão didn’t progress beyond the initial SEC filing, it moved forward on a number of growth metrics. In addition to half a dozen new locations in the U.S. and overseas, the chain reimagined its Bar Fogo menu and opened a new flagship in Miami. This year, it’s shooting for a dozen new units.
HQ: Dallas (U.S.)
Units: 55 (U.S.)
Founded: 1997 (U.S.)
Rock N Roll Sushi
Rock N Roll Sushi distinguishes itself from competitors on multiple fronts. For one, the brand embraces (rather than eschews) the so-called “Americanizing” of certain dishes, which helps it reel in sushi novices. To that end, the chain is targeting markets that have historically wanted for global cuisines. On top of it all, the restaurant is sticking to its rock ‘n’ roll roots, with tunes and memorabilia to create a one-of-a-kind atmosphere.
HQ: Destin, Florida
Dae Gee Korean BBQ
After a decade spent laying the groundwork, Dae Gee Korean BBQ is ready to kick growth into high gear by capitalizing on its streamlined systems, unique menu offerings in the casual-dining space, and its pop culture cachet (the brand first wowed Guy Fieri back in 2015). Currently Dae Gee has two dozen franchise units in the pipeline that will include locations in Texas, South Dakota, Indiana, and Mexico; about half are expected to open by year-end.
Hawkers Asian Street Food
Hawkers takes its inspiration—and name—from the open-air food stalls found across Southeast Asia. The restaurant fosters an immersive dining experience through its atmosphere (think: neon street signs, red lanterns, and pan-Asian pop art and iconography) and its menu of dim sum–style small plates, curry dishes, rice and noodle bowls, and more than a dozen craft cocktails. So far, Hawkers has grown exclusively in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic (save for a single Dallas outpost), but growing interest in global cuisines—not to mention its 4.8 out of 5 in guest reviews—has opened up runway aplenty.
HQ: Orlando, Florida
Eggs Up Grill
The history of Eggs Up Grill can be condensed to two distinct eras: before and after WJ Partners took over the established, but petite South Carolina brand and installed industry veteran Ricky Richardson as CEO. The FSR Breakout Brand of the Year distinguishes itself through a value-driven menu and close franchisee ties. Eggs Up Grill aims to open 20–25 locations this year and hit 200 units by the end of 2026.
HQ: Spartanburg, South Carolina
Smash Park locations may include shuffleboard, bocce ball, giant pong, cornhole, and a massive TV wall, but pickleball is at the heart of the brand. In addition to casual matches on its indoor and outdoor, the eatertainment venue also hosts competitive leagues and booze-fueled tournaments (courtesy of an extensive bar program including the popular “Sociabowls”). Although Smash Park has already built out its franchise infrastructure, the brand will jumpstart its growth over the next few years by building more corporate locations.
HQ: West Des Moines, Iowa