If you consider yourself a NextGen Casual restaurant, we’d love to hear from you (please feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org). We see this sector as any full-service brand from five to 200 units with plans to grow, chef- or quality-driven, sustainability-minded, contemporary, modern décor, and ingredient-conscious, with checks falling somewhere in the $12–24 range.
But first, let’s introduce some of NextGen Casual’s leading players, what makes them tick, and how they view the full-service sector of tomorrow.
Editor's note on charts: FSR teamed up with Bruce Reinstein and Tim Hand, partners at Kinetic12 Consulting, a Chicago-based foodservice and general management consulting firm, to take the pulse of what matters to NextGen Casual restaurant brands, and what opportunities are worth investing in at this stage of the pandemic journey. Kinetic12 conducts quarterly online surveys of 100 senior managers from leading emerging and growth chains followed by one-on-one interviews. Twenty-three brands were surveyed for this study.
Unchaining the chain
At one point, True Food Kitchen executives held a brainstorming session. The reality, CEO Christine Barone says, is there wasn’t a moniker to encapsulate what the brand offered and stood for: a restaurant based on science and the anti-inflammatory food pyramid—the brainchild of its founder, Dr. Andrew Weil. “We were saying, it feels like ‘conscious casual,’” says Barone, a former senior vice president of food at Starbucks, who joined True Food Kitchen in 2016.
“I think for so long in the restaurant industry, the experience was about providing service, which was really kind of similar, although executed differently, across the spectrum. And great food. But I think what this next generation of concepts offers, and how I would think of ourselves, is we’re doing awesome food, awesome service, and we’re taking that experience to a really different level.”
“And,” Barone continues, “really differentiating ourselves and who we are in our mission, right as you walk through our doors.”
Casual dining, for decades, hung its hat on a comfortable notion: the idea you could step into a restaurant in any town, at any time, on any date, and the experience would feel like slipping on your favorite sweater. It’s the same banner point Shake Shack (and others) crashed when it chose to “unchain” the multiunit experience in an effort to reflect independents and the localization of food. Plus, younger consumers, powered by social media, began to care more about the ability to become brands themselves. They sniffed out insincerity from larger corporations. Neutrality on societal issues was a major red flag.
Thus, the idea a blanket approach would appeal to a generation obsessed with self-expression was a tenuous one at best. You either had to give them a herd to belong to or risk becoming culturally irrelevant.
True Food Kitchen had 12 stores when Barone came on board. There are now 39 and each looks a bit different. “In the past, it’s like, here’s the art program and here are the things you can choose from and you might walk into Topeka, Kansas, and it’s the same artwork as Tampa, Florida,” Barone says. “So I think that’s a piece of it: differentiating the restaurant environment to really reflect your mission and purpose.”
Kyle Noonan, the owner and CEO of FreeRange Concepts, a multi-concept operator out of Texas that runs dog-park-themed franchise MUTTS Canine Cantina, as well as The Rustic, Bowl & Barrel, The General Public, and Joe Leo Fine Tex Mex, says casual dining “had become a sea of sameness, with a lot of big brands that all started to resemble one another both from a design and food perspective.”
“Today’s consumers want something differentiated in their dining experiences, whether that is the physical aesthetic of the space, a unique menu offering, or something that offers an element of entertainment,” he says.
To put it plainly, guest expectations forced the historical lines between restaurant categories to blur. Because of that, there’s been a meaningful shift in how full-service restaurants must respond, says Ricky Richardson, CEO of Eggs Up Grill, a brand that reached 50 locations in August. Eggs Up Grill has set opening records for three straight years, growing an average of 25 percent.
Richardson understands this shift better than most. Before coming to Eggs Up Grill in 2018, he served as president and chief operating officer of TGI Fridays. “For many years, full-service restaurants operated in a way that made guests abide by the brand’s expectations of what they wanted to eat,” he says. “[This forced] a level of ambiance onto the guest and required every customer to dine on the brand’s timeline.”
“That all has changed,” he adds. “Guests expect restaurants to be very focused, do what they do very well, and consistently so.”
Hence, the narrow menus that define this NextGen category. “They want quality, convenience, and value, and to be valued,” Richardson says. “Both in how they’re treated and in what they receive.”
Eggs Up Grill worked to create an open, airy, light, and “happy” vibe through its colors, décor, and layout. But this is a conversation that stretches well beyond visual cues.
To Richardson’s point, asking guests “to dine on the brand’s timeline” has become an archaic notion.