COVID has battle-tested restaurants for an unbelievably long stretch, and 2022 was no different.
Operators were faced with issues around commodities, labor, supply chain, and weather events. But the industry is innovative and resilient, and the strong pushed through.
The following is a list of 17 casual-dining chains to watch in 2023. This group is growing and putting itself in the best position for whenever the post-COVID timeline arrives.
2022 was a record year for growth for Pizzeria Uno; it completed five new signings—more than it’s had since 2011. These include locations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Virginia.
The growth strategy now features a new hotel-restaurant conversion strategy allowing operators to open a full-service Pizzeria Uno restaurant connected to their hotel. The first of these conversions to launch was a Chicago-area hotel that opened its doors in August. This location, which was previously an unbranded restaurant, marked the first time Pizzeria Uno expanded its original Chicago deep dish recipe outside its downtown location.
Looking ahead to 2023, Pizzeria Uno is targeting 10 to 15 new units, with more to come in the years ahead.
Chuck Lager America’s Tavern
Chuck Lager America’s Tavern, co-created by celebrity chef Fabio Viviani, Chuck Lager, Craig Colby, and Michael Colby, offers mostly American food, but with international influences across the board. Some examples include the Mt. Kilimanjaro Burger and the Tuna Poke Nachos. The food menu is complemented by a beverage program anchored by craft cocktails, bourbons, whiskies, wines, and draft beers.
The growing restaurant brand is doubling its corporate footprint and tripling its franchise locations, including a new corporate store in Chicagoland and new franchises in Orlando, Tampa, Sarasota, Naples, and Key West. Among the brand’s newest franchisees are former Red Robin president Eric Houseman, and former vice president of franchise operations Brad Clawson. They’ve signed to build 10 Chuck Lager locations along the east coast of Florida, stretching from Palm County down to Key West.
Angry Crab Shack
In 2023, Angry Crab Shack will grow internationally for the first time. The first unit, set to open late Q1, will be only miles away from Buckingham Palace in London.
Angry Crab Shack is equipped to handle the leap overseas, brand president Andy Diamond says. As the chain has grown over the past five years, it’s developed a sophisticated corporate team that trains management candidates and franchise owners. It’s a type of infrastructure fit to handle inquiries from anywhere in the world.
The upcoming store in London, based in an urban, downtown environment, will be only 2,000 square feet. It will have the same branding, color, and energy as U.S. restaurants, including a hint of Arizona culture, but there will be British vibes to make it feel more local.
Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza
Anthony’s first dive into franchising will be nontraditional. The brand will enter a BurgerFi location in Kissimmee, Florida, in spring 2023 as a co-brand concept. NDM Hospitality will add 1,000 square feet onto the building to accommodate the pizza and wing chain, including a new gas-enhanced coal-fired oven from Wood Stone, which CEO Ian Baines calls “one of the premium pizza oven builders in the U.S.”
Outside of that initial store, most of the chain’s franchising growth will come via a slimmer prototype. The chain’s legacy box is roughly 3,200 square feet, but the new store design will range from 2,000 to 2,200 square feet, with more than 60 seats in the dining room and the bar still intact. The smaller size isn’t necessarily a novel idea for Anthony’s. A location in Boca Raton, Florida, open since 2015, is around 2,000 square feet. An older restaurant in Weston, Florida, is around that square footage as well.
Sports & Social
Sports & Social is an entertainment destination that brings customers the next best experience to being at the game.
Last year, the company introduced Sports & Social DraftKings, a specialized store that allows customers to play daily fantasy sports and place bets from their mobile devices—while watching all of these games live. The 10,400-square-foot venue has a 32-foot LED media wall, a DraftKings Lounge for private parties, an outdoor patio, live music, and the typical arcade games found at other Sports & Social sites. The location is based in Troy, Michigan, which is about 25 miles north of Detroit.
The NextGen Casual is looking to capitalize on a regulated U.S. sports betting market that earned a record $4.33 billion in 2021, according to the American Gaming Association, or a 179.7 percent increase year-over-year.
Atlas Restaurant Group
In 2022, Atlas Restaurant Group earned $130 million in net sales. CEO Alex Smith estimates that by 2024, Atlas will double that figure, fueled by increased volume and annual growth of four to five units. In terms of development, the company is booked through 2024 and already looking at 2025.
Over the past decade, Atlas has opened more than 20 different restaurants brands across multiple states. All are independents, except for seafood chains Loch Bar (one unit in Texas, Florida, and Maryland), Ouzo Bay (one unit in Maryland and Texas), and Choptank (two units in Maryland). Atlas covers a variety of food groups, including Italian, Japanese, French, and American.
A majority are based in Maryland, but there’s a growing presence in Florida, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Looking ahead, Atlas plans to enter Washington, D.C. in 2023 with two additional concepts, Lucha Rosa and Parlour Victoria.
Picnik is a better-for-you concept in every sense of the phrase. In lieu of refined sugar, gluten, seed oil, soy, corn, and peanuts, the menu favors pressed avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, and MCT oil; pasteurized meat and eggs; Himalayan sea salt; organic tofu; butter from grass-fed cows; and raw honey. The beverage menu is just as diverse, with signature cocktails like the Pitaya Margarita (blanco tequila, dragonfruit, lime, and raw honey), low ABV and zero-proof drinks, cider, hard kombucha, beer, sustainable wine, tea, and butter coffee. Customers are able to add a handful of wellness ingredients, including collagen, lion’s mane (a species of mushroom), and adaptogen protein.
In 2016, the first brick-and-mortar restaurant opened, followed by a second one last summer. Another location—and the first outside of Austin—is expected in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood in the first quarter of 2023.
Rib & Chop House
Rib & Chop House officially announced its first franchise program at the start of November.
The company, offering Louisiana flavors for more than 20 years, wants to be the community restaurant in Mountain West towns of 50,000 to 100,000 people. CEO Yaron Goldman sees an opportunity to capitalize on the lack of competition in these markets.
To transform Rib & Chop House into a more franchisable chain, the brand reduced its prototype from the typical 7,000-8,000 square feet to freestanding locations between 6,000-7,000 square feet and endcap units with 5,000-plus square feet. The new box reduces kitchen size, and keeps the dining room the same, which is crucial since seating capacity is one of the chain’s biggest sales factors.
Rock N Roll Sushi
The concept is the brainchild of Gerri Mach and Lance Hallmark, the latter of whom didn’t eat sushi at first. Gerri Mach, of Asian descent, introduced it to him, and he promptly fell in love. Rock N Roll Sushi officially opened in Mobile, Alabama, in 2010 and started franchising five years later.
To lure potentially reluctant guests, the couple added rock ‘n’ roll music and memorabilia and built a crowd-pleaser of a menu, by “Americanizing” the sushi experience. The rolls are either baked or fried and named in an approachable manner, like the VIP Roll, British Invasion Roll, or Punk Rock Roll—no chopsticks required. But at the same time, there is a section for the traditionalists, with nigiri and sashimi. Sushi mixes 65 percent and hibachi accounts for 15–20 percent of sales.
Rock N Roll Sushi has roughly 60 locations in the Southeast. Units average about 2,000 square feet.
Black Tap started in 2015 as a small burger joint inside New York City’s Soho neighborhood, but it’s known across the world in Dubai, Baharain, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Switzerland.
Co-owner Chris Barish believes Black Tap’s global appeal comes from the brand’s DNA, which is to give every customer a “wow experience.” Much attention is placed into colorful wall decor, and the music is curated from the best hip hop hits of the 80s and 90s. The company also became widely recognized for its CrazyShake, an ambitiously concocted milkshake stacked with slices of cake, cookies, candies, and frosting. The rest of the menu, whether it’s burgers, beer, or cocktails, is constantly being innovated.
To fill international demand, Barish brought on John Brisco, an experienced overseas developer, to serve as president of international franchising. The industry veteran spent time as an international executive for TGI Fridays, Ruby Tuesday, Sbarro, Tony Roma’s, and Twin Peaks.
Savory Fund, an investment firm based in Utah, announced in October that it purchased a majority stake in The Sicilian Butcher, a three-unit elevated Italian concept based in Arizona.
The 5-year-old chain is known for its hand-rolled meatballs, scratch-made spaghetti, and Sicilian-style charcuterie platters, which reach 5-feet long. Housed under The Sicilian Butcher’s banner is The Sicilian Baker, a concept offering a variety of pastries and a make-your-own canoli bar. As part of the agreement, Savory Fund will invest up to $30 million in these two brands. Both emerging chains fall under the Maggiore Group, run by married couple Joey and Cristina Maggiore and their business partner, Flora Tersigni.
The multi-million-dollar funds will be used to unify operations and fuel expansion in new markets, like Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Las Vegas. Savory Fund expects to open almost 20 units in the next four years.
In the past dozen years, Hawkers has expanded to 13 locations in seven states, and now the objective is to reach 100 restaurants by 2030. The cofounders wanted to look beyond their typical three-year strategic planning increments. With stability, sustainability, and scalability now in place, cofounder Kaleb Harrell and his partners felt Hawkers was ready to look 20, 30, or 40 years out.
The company prides itself on keeping infrastructure growth ahead of unit development. As of July, Hawkers had enough resources to support double the number of restaurants. That said, Harrell recognizes the company will have to ramp up swiftly in some areas—especially middle-management roles like area directors and regional chefs—for the chain to meet its 2030 goal.
“We’re really looking at redefining our category, and we’re looking at changing the landscape of what casual Asian dining means for the country,” Harrell says.
Fogo de Chão
Fogo de Chão announced they are starting 2023 with 12 domestic and international leases and development agreements signed, with more in the works for later this year.
In 2022, the Brazilian steakhouse opened stores in premium markets like, El Segundo, California; Coral Gables, Florida.; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Queens, New York; Reston, Virginia.; and Monterrey, Mexico. It also signed franchise development agreements to enter Bolivia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Canada, and the Philippines. In 2023, many new restaurants will include enclosed patios, rooftops and lounges, which are designed for unique dining occasions (including the Full Churrasco Experience) and provide added capacity year-round.
Fogo will also continue to roll out its Next Level Lounge platform featuring an elevated bar experience.
The Place 2 Be
Brunch concept The Place 2 Be recently opened its fifth location in New Haven, Connecticut. Four other locations are in West Hartford, downtown Hartford, and the south end of Hartford in Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts. A location in Dallas is also in the works.
The restaurant has two-story tall real trees indoors under a skylight and a 1,500 square-foot rooftop patio for warmer months.
“Growing The Place 2 Be to now serve and become part of the New Haven area community is something we’ve been looking forward to all year. This space is particularly special and unique to our restaurant group with its stand-out features,” says Gina Luari, founder and CEO of The Place 2 Be. “To be able to open our new location on the heels of receiving such a tremendous recognition is amazing, and we are so honored.”
Tom’s Watch Bar
Tom’s Watch Bar, a six-unit concept based in Denver, announced in November that it received a “significant” investment from Pro Football Hall-of-Famer John Elway. The legendary quarterback said he plans to be an active board member and help the restaurant grow its national footprint.
Based on its existing footprint, the brand has a systemwide sales run rate of more than $40 million. That should rise to more than $100 million once the seven stores under construction are completed by late Q2 2023. Tom’s Watch Bar describes itself as a “super sports bar.” It features a large centralized television, surrounded by hundreds of other screens to provide 360-degree viewing. It pairs traditional sports bar food with a variety of domestic, imported, microbrew, and craft beers, which are available in a 40-ounce, two-handled mug.
Via 313 Pizzeria
At the start of November, Via 313 named Ray Risley its new CEO. He’s the former president and COO of Front Burner Restaurant Group’s Whiskey Cake Kitchen & Bar brand. Prior to that, he was president of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse.
At Front Burner, Risley was responsible for building its executive leadership team and overseeing 12 locations that generated system-wide sales of $85 million. At Del Frisco’s — where he spent nearly two decades of his career — he led 13 Double Eagle Steakhouse locations with over $176 million in annual revenue, and he oversaw one of the highest AUV chain of restaurants in the country (a staggering $14.1M per location).
Via 313 is ready to expand. It already has about a dozen locations, with 18-plis more to come in the next two years.
Legendary Restaurant Brands
Legendary Restaurant Brands, the parent of Bennigan’s, Bennigan’s On The Fly, and Steak and Ale, today announced in 2022 that is signed an areal development agreement to open 15 new stores in several U.S. markets.
This includes the revival of Steak and Ale, which is projected to happen in either summer or fall in Burnsville, Minnesota. The new menu will feature traditional favorites, including the salad bar, and several contemporary touches, including a Prime Rib carving station and table-side service.
Endeavor Properties, the franchisee, also holds exclusive rights for expansion in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.