The growing challenge

The restaurant industry is a long way removed from the days when driving revenue was as simple as driving unit count. Real estate is often challenge No. 1 for operators. Picking the right growth strategy can signal the boon or downfall of your brand, regardless of how stellar the service or food might be.

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Everything from fortressing to clustering, franchising, corporate, licensing, non-traditional—these decisions are critical. Not to mention lease issues, supply chain distribution, city codes, and on it spins.

This is why growth is such an impressive feat for brands in all segments, but especially in full service, where the capital needed to scale is simply, on average, higher and more risk-heavy than a counter-service model. There’s the extensive staff to hire, from back of the house to front of the house to marketing and anything else you might think of, in a market where unemployment rates sub-4 percent mean there’s competition aplenty and workers who demand more than ever—and it’s not just money. And what about training and retaining those star performers when they get in the system? Did we forget rising wages?

Take a look at this data from Merlin, a jobs platform that matches hourly talent with employers who are looking to hire, at what New York City restaurant positions pay on average, per hour:

  • Line Cook: $14.85
  • Dishwasher: $15.15
  • Baker: $15.50
  • Kitchen helper: $16.00
  • Porter: $18.66
  • Restaurant Manager: $18.90
  • Waitress: $23.36
  • Sushi Chef: $24.06
  • Banquet Server: $26.25
  • Sous Chef: $27.28

In very simple terms, growth is hard. Here are nine emerging brands from this year’s FSR 50 that are defying the odds.

Umami Burger

Average-unit volume: $1.6 million

Average check: $15

Total company sales (in millions): $37

Planned units for 2019: 40

Current units: 22

Clearly, if Umami Burger pulls off the growth it’s suggesting it would represent a massive change. The 40 units it has planned are nearly double the better-burger chain’s current footprint. What makes this realistic, though, is the international chops of owner, sbe. Umami opened its second Japan location in late September, and has plans for 10 additional stores there by 2020. It has further plans to franchise four locations in Mexico City this year with “massive international expansion in the near future,” it said, including 40 more locations in Mexico, the Japan units, and outposts in the UAE and Qatar. There are currently U.S. restaurants in California, New York, Illinois, and Nevada. Umami Burger also has an exclusive partnership with Impossible Foods. Founded in LA in 2009, Umami was once named GQ’s Burger of the Year.  Sbe, run by founded Sam Nazarian, plans to have a global portfolio of 25 hotels and over 170 culinary, nightlife, and entertainment venues by the end of 2018. Under subsidiary Disruptive Restaurant Group, it runs restaurants Katsuya by Chef Katsuya Uechi, Cleo by Chef Danny Elmaleh, Fi’lia by Michael Schwartz, Leynia and Diez & Seiz by Chef José Icardi, Hyde Lounge, S Bar, Doheny Room Skybar, Bond, and Privilege.

Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar

Average-unit volume: $5.4 million

Average check: $16

Total company sales (in millions): $70

Planned units for 2019: 30

Current units: 24

Walk-On’s is another brand poised to more than double its unit count in the next year. This isn’t really surprising given that the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based sports bar, once named America’s best by ESPN, has been building to this point for some time. Back in summer 2017, Walk-On’s had 12 locations. So it’s no stranger to the double-your-footprint task. At the time, COO and president Scott Taylor said there were 106 commitments in the pipeline with plans to bring the brand to a total of 13 states. Currently, there are four in Baton Rouge, two in New Orleans and San Antonio, and one each in Lafayette, Houma, Shreveport, Lake Charles, Covington, Broussard, Alexandria, Gonzales, Mobile, West Monroe, and Bossier City, Louisiana; and Lubbock and Tyler, Texas; and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Locations are coming soon to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas, with several additional markets across the Southern U.S., the company noted. There is undeniable runway for the popular brand, which is co-owned by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. The latest location opened October 8 in Brusly, Louisiana. That entertainment-driven restaurant, which serves the Walk-On’s Cajun classics, hired 230 people to run the store.

The Lost Cajun

Average-unit volume: $1.3 million

Average check: $15

Total company sales (in millions): $30

Planned units for 2019: 25

Current units: 21

Few brands define the restaurant rags-to-riches story better than Raymond Griffin’s booming chain. He started with a 15-seat, 850-square-foot Cajun spot in Frisco, Colorado, eight years ago, hoping to make a living after moving from Lafitte, Louisiana, where he ran a fishing lodge. Griffin admits he was a bit lost at first, and “got hammered pretty bad” in the early days. But despite the issues with food costs, labor costs, bad hires, and such, customers loved the food—and perspective franchisees wanted in. The Lost Cajun has never really advertised its franchising opportunity, which started in 2013. It’s simply grown by partnering with operators who fell in love with the brand. Everyone from a couple operating a dog-sled business to Jimmy John’s workers and Dunkin’ Donuts operators. The brand has exploded in recent months. In opened No. 21 in Cypress, Texas, recently, and has plans for an additional four locations this year. The Lost Cajun is on track for 450 percent growth in openings from 2017–2018. The 25 slated for 2019 would take that up another notch.

“You know what,” Griffin told FSR in August. “I don’t think this thing can make it anymore; I know it. Within three years we’re going to have 100 stores. It’s literally growing that way. We’re going to have in excess of $20 million in sales this year. And if that isn’t crazy, I don’t know what is.”

JINYA Ramen Bar

Average-unit volume: $1.3 million

Average check: $15

Total company sales (in millions): $30

Planned units for 2019: 25

Current units: 33 (including Canada, 28 are in the U.S.)

JINYA debuted in Los Angeles in 2010. The Tokyo store opened in 2000 and grew to six Japan noodle houses. Restaurateur and La Brea Dining Group founder Tomonori Takahashi has ramped up growth lately, with 12 units on deck for this year and 25 planned for next. The chain opened an Omaha, Nebraska, restaurant in September, bringing its slow-cooking chops to a 76-seat, 2,800-square foot venue—the first in the state. The restaurant simmers all its stocks for 10-plus hours in FIJI Water and ages its house-made noodles for three days. Guests can then customize the ramen with 20-plus add-ons, like wonton chicken, and beef Sukiyaki. Here’s a look at how quickly the brand is expanding: Since April, it’s opened in Downtown LA; Salt Lake City, Utah; Omaha; North Bethesda, Maryland; Houston (two); Pleasanton, California; Las Vegas; and Orlando, Florida. Locations are coming soon to Alpharetta, Georgia; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Summerlin, Nevada; Dallas; Port Arthur, Cypress, and Sugarland, Texas; Heights Waterworks in Houston; and Encino, California.

Famous Toastery

Average-unit volume: $1.5 million

Average check: $13

Total company sales (in millions): $30

Planned units for 2019: 15

Current units: 34

Famous Toastery’s growth is hitting a sweet spot in one of full-service’s fastest-rising segments. The breakfast chain ballooned to 32 units from 10 last year, which fits into the previously announce targets of the chain, founded by best friends turned business partners Brian Burchill and Robert Maynard in 2005. In the past year, Famous Toastery’s sales have increased about 53 percent. It started franchising in 2013 and has mostly followed that path since. It was recently named a Franchise Times Top 200+ brand. “This was never meant to be a 30-plus unit chain and growing, but it’s exciting,” Famous Toastery co-founder and CEO Robert Maynard said in a statement after earning the recognition. “We take it one step at a time. We’re not just selling franchises. We’ve become very picky about who we choose to grow with. We have a system that works, and the better-breakfast market is still untapped. There’s a lot of room here to grow, and we’re pretty excited about that.”

Maynard said Famous Toastery wants to close out territories in its home state of North Carolina. “For North Carolina, we own the market, and we’re continuing to do so,” Maynard said. “We’ve had a lot of success throughout the Carolinas. It’s always great to grow in your base and own your market, and that’s what we’re doing.”

While the North Carolina run continues, Famous Toastery has expanded with stores in Colorado; Georgia; South Carolina; Virginia; Pennsylvania; and New York. Twenty-two of the restaurants are in the Tar Heel state.


Average-unit volume: $3.1 million

Average check: $14

Total company sales (in millions): $60

Planned units for 2019: 12

Current units: 28

If you go back to summer 2017, Snooze had 20 units and no hesitations about where it wanted to go. “No one had done anything different with breakfast in 30 years, and we’re taking the chef-driven model to it with Snooze,” CEO David Birzon said. Snooze has picked up growth over the years, with a record six openings in 2017 broken by its own eight in 2018, and plans to eclipse that once more with 12 next year. The brand, born in Denver in 2006, is targeting its first East Coast location to join restaurants in Colorado, California, Arizona, and Texas. The footprint is heaviest in Colorado (nine) and Texas (10).

Coming soon are stores in Fort Worth, two in Houston, one in San Antonio, and another in Orange. According to a Denver Business Journal story written in July, Snooze hasn’t experienced a quarter of same-store sales declines in its history, even during the Great Recession. It had gains in the “high single digits” in 2017, it noted. As the chain expands, Snooze is taking a community-first and sustainable approach to new markets. The company diverts 90 percent of all of its waste from landfills, with plans to divert 100 percent by the end of 2018. When deciding what ingredients come through the door, Snooze has strict principles: Meat must not contain any subtherapeutic antibiotics; eggs must be cage-free; and products should be purchased from organic purveyors whenever possible. Because of the costliness associated with organic certification, Snooze also guides small vendors that it works with through the process. Employees visit partner farms and manufacturers, and each location has a “green captain” to organize events like the farm field trips and to keep employees informed of sustainability efforts.

Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar

Average-unit volume: $2.6 million

Average check: $18

Total company sales (in millions): $75

Planned units for 2019: 10

Current units: 33

Bad Daddy’s run of 13 consecutive quarters of positive same-store sales came to an end this Q4. Comps declined 0.7 percent due to the impact of Hurricane Florence. Adjusted, parent company Good Times Restaurants Inc. said Bad Daddy’s same-store sales would have increased 0.7 percent over the prior-year’s lift of 1.4 percent. The storm resulted in closures for seven store days, including five among the comps base, as well as reduced traffic in its North Carolina restaurants in the days immediately preceding and succeeding landfall, the company said. In other terms, Bad Daddy’s should jump right back to the stellar results it’s grown accustomed to. The brand opened restaurants in Roswell, Georgia, and Greenville, South Carolina, in Q4, bringing the total opened during fiscal 2018 to nine. Two more are expected to start the fiscal 2019 calendar. Good Times also runs Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard, a quick-service operations with 36 locations, primarily in Colorado.

Bad Daddy’s got its start in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2018—right in the thick of the Great Recession. In May 2015, founders Denis Thompson and Frank Scibelli sold the concept to Good Times. Boyd Hoback, the company’s president and CEO, said Good Times was in the market for another growth concept. “We evaluated Bad Daddy’s and thought it could be a nice niche concept operating at the top end of casual theme, similarly positioned as Good Times is in [quick service]. We liked the quality of the food, the energy, and particularly the unit economics,” he told FSR in July. That’s turned out to be a good partnership. When Good Times purchased Bad Daddy’s, there were 13 units. Hoback said the goal for Bad Daddy’s is to open eight–10 new locations per year. Most of the new locations will be in the Southeastern U.S.

110 Grill

Average-unit volume: $4 million

Average check: $25

Total company sales (in millions): $30

Planned units for 2019: 10

Current units: 16

The upscale, polished brand is still a relative newcomer to the industry. Founded in 2014 and named after Route 110—where it opened in Chelmsford, Massachusetts—the brand has expanded by paying close attention to where it lands. It looks at markets without major competition from similar brands, and multi-use developments that are already generating significant foot traffic from other draws, like shopping and entertainment. 110 Grill has 11 Massachusetts stores to go with an Albany, New York, restaurant and four in New Hampshire. A Wrentham, Massachusetts, restaurant is on deck for November, while three other Massachusetts units are scheduled for either late this year or early next. A West Lebanon, New Hampshire, outpost is planned for early 2019 as well, as are locations in Syracuse and Latham, New York. Ryan Dion, co-founder and chief operating officer, told The MetroWest Daily News, that the immediate growth focus is on New York.

110 Grill is an atmosphere-driven operation, with live music, open kitchens, large horseshoe-shaped bars, and outdoor patios with fire pits. The from-scratch menu is seasonal and there’s also a robust loyalty program that offers double points on Mondays. The chain was also named one of the most allergy-friendly restaurants in America by AllergyEats this year, earning a 4.43 rating.


Average-unit volume: $2.3 million

Average check: $35

Total company sales (in millions): $88

Planned units for 2019: 10

Current units: 40 domestic

The off-beat burger chain tried something different this past September, launching a delivery-only concept from its ghost restaurant in Long Island City, Queens. “Bare Bones” weekend online ordering platform features a menu of burgers from Bareburger, vegan options from Chef Rudy Ramos’ 7 Day Weekend, and Texas-style slow-cooked barbecue from Salt N’ Bone. This introduction came after Bareburger said it noticed a positive shift in demand for vegan/vegetarian options following the launch of Beyond and Impossible meat options. Bareburger founder Euripides Pelekanos teamed with 14-year veteran vegan chef Ramos to start developing a menu for an all vegan concept that is now known as 7 Day Weekend.

“Over the last ten years, we’ve seen takeout and delivery become 50 percent of the restaurant business, we wanted to focus on higher quality delivery which focuses on faster delivery, hotter food and greater consistency,” Pelekanos said.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, NextGen Casual, Slideshow