FSR NextGen 25: The Trailblazers of Casual Dining

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Black Bear Diner
Black Bear Diner
Even the pandemic couldn’t hamper the momentum behind NextGen Casual, as evidenced by these 25 brands that are leading the pack.

NextGen Casual is far from a monolith. The restaurants that comprise this new category run the gamut in terms of cuisine, design, growth strategy, dining experience, and even age. Some, such as Black Bear Diner and Jaleo, have been around since the 1990s and evolved to stay relevant and drive innovation within the industry. Others, like Finney’s and Puttshack, only debuted a few years ago but are already standing out among their peers.

But for all these differences, the concepts are united in key characteristics. They prioritize fresh, quality menus over deep discounts; they strive to make each unit feel unique and localized; and they have ambitions to grow but never at the expense of the brand’s culture and values.

Ranging from four to nearly 150 locations, the 25 brands that follow are leading the charge on NextGen Casual—and the rest of the restaurant world would do well to take note.

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Black Bear Diner
Black Bear Diner
Black Bear Diner

Since the very first location opened in Mount Shasta, California, Black Bear Diner has delighted guests with a singular dine-in atmosphere. The cabin-themed restaurants sport stone accents, carved wooden bears, and other rustic details.

HQ: Redding, California
Units: 146
Founded: 1995
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TAG Restaurant Group
Los Chingones
Los Chingones

Los Chingones (slang for “badass”) is the growth vehicle in chef Troy Guard’s TAG Restaurant Group. Specializing in San Diego–style Mexican, the restaurant opened its first unit outside of Denver in Fort Collins, Colorado, last year. Around that same time it also opened Little Chingones, a pared-down fast casual in Denver’s Milepost Zero food hall. Guard is eyeing other markets, particularly Texas, for future growth opportunities.

HQ: Denver
Units: 5
Founded: 2013
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Iron Hill Brewery
Iron Hill Brewery
Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant

Even before COVID, Iron Hill Brewery was working on a production facility, which opened in fall 2020. Now, its signature brews are sold at more than 700 retail outlets. The facility also houses the company’s only Taphouse, a counter-service model whose flexibility facilitates menu R&D. Last October, Iron Hill brought in McCormick & Schmick’s veteran Chris Westcott to helm the brand as CEO.

HQ: Exton, Pennsylvania
Units: 20
Founded: 1996
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Eureka Restaurant Group
Eureka Restaurant Group
Eureka

From the get-go, Eureka knew that serving craft beverages—both beer and cocktails—would act as a strong point of differentiation within the New American category. And in the intervening years, it’s solidified that reputation across California while also opening locations in Seattle; Las Vegas; Boise, Idaho; and Austin, Texas. After dialing back on expansion during the pandemic, Eureka is poised to open four restaurants this year, including a forthcoming spot in Ontario, California.

HQ: Hawthorne, California
Units: 25
Founded: 2009
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Jeff Marini
Beatrix
Beatrix

Legend has it that Rich Mellman first conceived of Beatrix as a home for his favorite dishes that didn’t make the cut at other Lettuce Entertain You restaurants. But these second-string dishes struck a chord with Chicagoans, and the concept has since grown to four full-service locations, as well as four Beatrix Markets, which feature grab-and-go fare and a hot bar. Blending New American with international flavors, the brand is set to open its fifth location in the Loop this year.

HQ: Chicago
Units: 4
Founded: 2013
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Jakob Layman
Kura Sushi
Kura Sushi

In 1977, Kunihiko Tanaka founded Kura Sushi with a mission to uphold food integrity, even as other restaurants relaxed their standards. More than 30 years later, the Japanese brand brought its signature conveyor belt sushi to the U.S., and now it’s entering an aggressive phase of expansion. Kura Sushi grew its U.S. footprint by 28 percent in fiscal year 2021, and 2022 promises to be just as fruitful. The chain has already opened a San Antonio store and is aiming for a total of eight new units by year-end.

HQ: U.S. Corporate Support Center: Irvine, California
Units: 37
Founded: 2009
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Hai Hospitality
Uchi
Uchi

Nearly 20 years after James Beard Award–winning chef Tyson Cole opened the first location, Uchi boasts five outposts in three states, as well as spin-off concepts including Uchiba and Uchiko. Still, the brand, which specializes in contemporary Japanese fare, remains measured in its growth. “Our people pipeline is just as important as the development pipeline, so our target is to grow one to two locations a year,” says Amber Quist, chief branding officer of parent company Hai Hospitality.

HQ: Austin, Texas
Units: 5
Founded: 2003
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North Italia
North Italia
North Italia

Thanks to the vision of its founder and restaurateur extraordinaire Sam Fox, North Italia has enjoyed a competitive edge since day one. Now under Cheesecake Factory ownership, its growth potential is even greater. Not only did North Italia open two new locations in Q3 2021, its same-store sales were also up 8 percent compared to the same quarter in 2019. The brand is on track to open as many as seven locations this year.

HQ: Calabasas Hills, California
Units: 29
Founded: 2002
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Tupelo Honey Southern Kitchen & Bar
Tupelo Honey
Tupelo Honey

Tupelo Honey Southern Kitchen & Bar is sweetly positioned at the intersection of two red-hot trends: all-day brunch and fresh takes on Southern eats. The concept, which also puts its own spin on lunch and dinner classics like shrimp and grits, has begun taking a novelty approach to expansion, wherein it targets markets that aren’t saturated in Southern fare. This year, Tupelo Honey enters four new markets, starting with Pittsburgh, which opened in January.

HQ: Asheville, North Carolina
Units: 19
Founded: 2000
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Hash Kitchen
Hash Kitchen
Hash Kitchen

When the private equity firm Mercato Partners’ $200 million Savory Restaurant Fund obtained a majority interest in Hash Kitchen, it had one clear goal in mind: transform the brand into the breakfast/brunch category’s dominant player west of the Mississippi.

HQ: Scottsdale, Arizona
Units: 5
Founded: 2015
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Finney’s Crafthouse
Finney’s Crafthouse
Finney’s Crafthouse

When Finney’s Crafthouse began in 2016, it did so with a mission to create memorable experiences, says Brad Finefrock, who directs business development for the Southern California–based brand.

HQ: Westlake Village, California
Units: 7
Founded: 2016
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Cooper’s Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk

One of the more upscale concepts on the list, Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant puts as much of an emphasis on its beverage program as its New American food menu. The combination is striking a note with consumers—and potentially Wall Street. Not only did the restaurant open new stores in both 2020 and 2021, it was also, as of press time, flirting with the idea of an IPO with an estimated valuation that could surpass $1 billion.

HQ: Downers Grove, Illinois
Units: 48
Founded: 2005
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Cameron Mitchell Restaurants
Ocean Prime
Ocean Prime

The flagship of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, Ocean Prime continues its expansion plans with a new Kansas City, Missouri, location that just opened in February. Specializing in classic seafood and steakhouse fare, the concept regularly wows fans. “Our ‘yes is the answer’ approach to hospitality has led to great recognition this [past] year from our guest reviews,” says vice president Mitch Miller. Ocean Prime took home the highest rating in TripAdvisor’s seafood category. The Tampa, Florida, location was also named among OpenTable’s top 100 restaurants.

HQ: Columbus, Ohio
Units: 17
Founded: 2008
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Regan Baroni
Jaleo
Jaleo

The brainchild of celebrated chef José Andrés has long been a D.C. mainstay, but now, just shy of the 30-year mark, it’s ramping up growth like never before. The pandemic may have forced the closure of one D.C. area location, but Jaleo is hardly deterred. Last summer, Andrés brought his bespoke Spanish concepts to Chicago. This year, it’s slated to nearly double that footprint with new locations in New York, Los Angeles, and Dubai, marking the first international unit.

HQ: Washington, D.C.
Units: 4
Founded: 1993
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Huckleberry’s
Huckleberry’s
Huckleberry’s

Huckleberry’s Breakfast & Lunch puts a California twist on foods found along the Mississippi (think: po’boys, Louisiana catfish, and beignets). After purchasing the concept in 2016, Heritage Restaurant Brands streamlined the menu and operations, priming it for expansion. That could translate to a dozen new units in 2022, 20 next year, and up to 30 in 2024. This year will also welcome Huckleberry’s first company-owned store, which could pave the way for both corporate and franchise growth.

HQ: San Luis Obispo, California
Units: 24
Founded: 2008
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Ford’s Garage
Ford’s Garage
Ford’s Garage

Ford’s Garage is the first and only restaurant to be granted the right to use Ford Motor Company’s iconic blue oval logo and other brand imagery. Classic cars like Ford’s Model T and Model A are featured in the restaurant, giving it a one-of-a-kind vibe. The Florida-based brand is looking to break into new markets this year and has already signed development deals in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Ohio, Kentucky, and several other states.

HQ: Tampa, Florida
Units: 17
Founded: 2012
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Mr Brews Taphouse
Mr Brews Taphouse
Mr Brews Taphouse

Mr Brews Taphouse started from a love of locally sourced craft beers and gourmet burgers and has since grown into a multistate chain with locations in Wisconsin, Kansas, Florida, Arizona, and Kentucky. Catering to local tastes, each location features more than 50 beers on tap. The selection includes franchisees’ personal favorites, community requests, and rotating taps from regional seasonal collections. New units in Florida are planned for 2022, and the brand is looking to develop its first ghost bar to deliver growlers via third-party services.

HQ: Birnamwood, Wisconsin
Units: 15
Founded: 2013
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Bartaco
Bartaco
bartaco

During the pandemic, bartaco made several strategic pivots that positioned it to thrive in otherwise unfavorable conditions, the most impactful being a substantial pay raise for all employees. Staff—including the back of house—now average anywhere from $19–$30 an hour after tips. The pivot was so successful that one of the brand’s units had a backlog of more than 2,000 applications the past fall when many restaurants were struggling to find staff.

HQ: Arlington, Virginia
Units: 23
Founded: 2010
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Firebirds Wood Fired Grill
Firebirds Wood Fired Grill
Firebirds Wood Fired Grill

What started out as a steakhouse in Charlotte, North Carolina, has turned into a 55-unit chain that spans 20 states. Firebirds is known for its wood-fired grills and hand-butchered steaks that are prepared in an open-flame exhibition kitchen, but it’s also committed to seasonally rotating menus. The brand is working to shrink its footprint, which would open it up to more real estate opportunities, especially in more urban and downtown areas.

HQ: Charlotte, North Carolina
Units: 55
Founded: 2000
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Puttshack
Puttshack
Puttshack

Eatertainment concept Puttshack is making a splash in the category under the leadership of CEO Joe Vrankin, who formerly held the same position at Topgolf from 2007 to 2012.

HQ: Chicago
Units: 6
Founded: 2018
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Brass Tap
The Brass Tap
The Brass Tap

Last year, the Florida-based chain’s budding loyalty club added a monthly average of 1,800 new customers while also signing nearly three dozen new franchise agreements. Serving 40-plus beers on tap and hundreds more by the bottle, The Brass Tap offers strong unit-level economics, which it’s using to spur franchise growth. Benefiting also from the resources of sister brand Beef O’Brady’s, The Brass Tap hopes to open 12–15 new stores in 2022.

HQ: Tampa, Florida
Units: 43
Founded: 2008
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Smokey Bones
Smokey Bones
Smokey Bones

Smokey Bones launched two brands during the pandemic and has innovated in other areas, too. A new prototype in Indiana will feature a remodeled dining room, separate to-go pick-up station, new menuboard, and POS, as well as a dedicated waiting area and to-go parking. Smokey Bones is also debuting a drive-thru in Kentucky that will use digital-ordering boards, order confirmation, and a drive-up window for express menu pickup.

HQ: Plantation, Florida
Units: 61
Founded: 1999
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Wings and Rings Corporate
Wings and Rings
Wings and Rings

In addition to dropping the “buffalo” from its name, Wings and Rings has revamped its in-store design to sport a fast casual–styled hangout area, complete with a patio and firepits. On the tech side, the brand is testing new AI machine learning and automation in the back of house to help close staffing gaps. Wings and Rings also made headlines earlier this year when it was announced the chain would start accepting franchising fees in the form of Bitcoin.

HQ: Loveland, Ohio
Units: 86
Founded: 1984
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Bar Louie
Bar Louie
Bar Louie

In January, Bar Louie introduced the General Manager Benefits Program as part of a long-term solution to the ongoing labor crisis. The multi-pronged initiative includes a three-week sabbatical for general managers every three years of service, education support, and a $500 quarterly wellness allowance. Bar Louie has also been testing virtual concept Macs & Stacks and plans to roll it out across nearly 50 corporate locations this year.

HQ: Dallas
Units: 70
Founded: 1990
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Bad Daddy Burger Bar
Bad Daddy Burger Bar
Bad Daddy's Burger Bar

After a development pause during the pandemic, Bad Daddy's Burger Bar began picking up steam last year with new locations in Marietta, Georgia, and Montgomery, Alabama. Known best for its burgers, the brand also introduced craft-made entrées like the Chicken Enchilada Sandwich, Backyard BBQ pork nachos, and Salmon Teriyaki Sandwich. “We strive to offer a variety of menu items beyond our signature burgers in order to cater to every guest,” says Bad Daddy’s CEO Ryan Zink.

HQ: Denver
Units: 40
Founded: 2007