Restaurants, by nature, have always been their own little innovation hubs. Whether it’s a mom-and-pop independent experimenting with new recipes or a national chain redesigning its store layout, foodservice is awash in fresh ideas and trends. Nevertheless, the notion of novelty and rapid development has largely coalesced around the tech sector in recent decades. The word, “disruptive,” which once carried a rather negative connotation, is now held up as the gold standard for innovation and ingenuity.
But restaurants don’t subscribe to the “move fast and break things” philosophy of Silicon Valley. The industry has never wanted for creativity and outside-the-box thinking, but it does move slower and more purposefully than the average startup. Restaurants needn’t reinvent the wheel (it’s a great wheel after all), but they can drive trends and share future-facing perspectives.
That’s why we checked in with leaders across nine NextGen Casual restaurants to learn more about what their brands are doing to shake up the status quo and what foodservice can expect in 2023. From marketing strategies to supply chain management to automation, our NextGen Trendsetters have plenty of food for thought as you jump into the new year—no need to break anything along the way.
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Senior Vice President of Supply Chain | First Watch
At First Watch, innovation begins with collaboration. Lilah Taha-Rippett, senior vice president of supply chain, leads a team that works in lockstep with the culinary division, headed by chef Shane Schaibly. And it’s this meeting of minds—plus long, deliberate lead times—that Taha-Rippett credits with the restaurant’s continued ability to push the envelope with its menu. It’s a rare feat for a brand that’s rapidly approaching 450 units, she says.
“Collaboration truly makes the ‘dream work.’ In an industry built on relationships, cultivating true partnership across departments and supplier partners is critical not only to success, especially in the current environment with inflation and supply chain pressures, but also to the ability to push boundaries and innovate,” Taha-Rippett says.
This strategy has paid dividends; over the years, First Watch has sussed out under-the-radar ingredients and flavors like chorizo-spiced cauliflower, which is featured in the Cauli-Rizo Tacos, and butterfly pea flower, which is blended in the Purple Haze juice.
In that time, the brand has also fostered relationships with larger, premium suppliers like Mike’s Hot Honey and Sambazon Acai, while making a point to work with smaller, lesser-known purveyors, too. For example, the breakfast concept’s Project Sunrise coffee is sourced from Mujeres in Café (Women in Coffee), a collective of female-owned and operated coffee farms in Colombia. It also taps family-owned Sugarman of Vermont for its maple syrup supply.
“It’s important to our business to find niche partners who can grow with us, supporting their business and communities, while serving a great product to our guests,” Taha-Rippett says.
She also points out another integral group in the supply chain that’s often overlooked, namely the delivery personnel (or “last-mile drivers,” as she puts it), who bring the ingredients fresh to the backdoor. “They’re the too-often-unsung heroes who consistently reinforce the importance of true partnership at every level of our business,” she says.
And indeed all points along the supply chain will be vital in 2023. First Watch is aiming to grow its bar program and introduce more global flavors into its LTO menu, even in the face of mounting inflation and possible sourcing challenges. For as Taha-Rippett puts it, “We’re problem-solvers at heart. We find a way.”
Hajime “Jimmy” Uba
President and CEO | Kura Sushi USA, Inc.
With both enthusiasm and great care, Kura Sushi USA is exploring the many possibilities that technology—particularly automation—can bring to the restaurant dining room.
At press time, the brand’s parent company in Japan was testing an automated dishwasher to help combat plateware shortages amid high traffic.
“It can practically feel like our guests are taking plates off the belt faster than we can wash them,” says Kura Sushi USA president and CEO Hajime “Jimmy” Uba.
While there’s not yet a timeline for the automated washer’s stateside launch, Uba already predicts it will go a long way in streamlining back-of-house operations. After all, domestic locations of Kura Sushi have already found success in guest-facing automation.
Last summer, the brand introduced Kur-B the Kurabot, a delivery robot that brings guests beverage orders and condiments. Rather than detract from the dine-in atmosphere, Kur-B has been a hit.
“The obvious concern would be that by introducing robots, you would reduce the ‘human touch’ you expect in hospitality. In fact, what we’ve seen through the implementation process has been the opposite,” Uba says. “By offloading certain tasks onto robot helpers, our employees are able to focus that much more on hospitality that only they can provide: the human touch.”
Uba explains that with Kur-B handling the runner positions, staff can interact more with guests. This new dynamic, he says, has boosted customer satisfaction scores and staff tips. Plus, guests have delighted in the novelty of a robot server.
In addition to the automated dishwashers, Uba says visitors to Kura Sushi can expect more tech enhancements to pop up in stores, though he’s keeping the specifics under wraps for the time being. However, one development that’s right around the corner is the brand’s first drive-up window in the forthcoming Naperville, Illinois, location. Though it’s not a traditional drive-thru, the format allows guests to pick up their to-go orders without leaving the car.
Uba credits Kura Sushi’s creative mindset to its four decades of success in Japan, which have instilled both institutional knowledge and a business approach that differs from many American restaurants. Innovation, he says, comes from a constant pursuit of perfection.
“When we’re building our strategies and initiative pipeline, we don’t think in terms of being disruptive or innovative for its own sake. What are we best at? What do our guests love about Kura, and why do they come to our restaurants?” Uba says. “These are the questions that serve as our north star.”
CEO and President | The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille
For Geo Concepcion, CEO of The Greene Turtle, the greatest challenge restaurants still face is “creating an environment where your employees are there with you long enough so you can create a really high-quality experience,” he says.
Though Concepcion doesn’t anticipate labor challenges going away soon, he advises operators to plan far ahead to ensure they’re giving team members a “reason to stick with you and be excited about what you’re doing,” he says.
Concepcion attributes The Greene Turtle’s high retention rate, from managers to hourly workers, to the quality of the culture created by general managers at each restaurant. “To be able to open seven physical locations in a year and staff those with management that’s excited to do it, is a testament to how we’ve empowered our managers,” he says.
Last year, The Green Turtle recapitalized, reorganized, and formed umbrella company ITA Group Holdings. As part of the deal, the new group acquired award-winning barbecue concept, Clark Crew BBQ. It also launched a program to jumpstart small (but growth-minded), founder-led concepts, like Region-Ale, Neo Pizza & Tap House, and Madrid Spanish Tavern. Now, The Greene Turtle is learning from these restaurants, he says.
“In working with all the different concepts, it forces us to disrupt the way we do things,” Concepcion says. “We get to see in real time how to attack a challenge in a different way, or with different ways of thinking.”
When implementing new technology, such as a POS system, loyalty app, or ordering kiosk, The Greene Turtle tries to strike a balance between pushing innovation and not letting technology overshadow the hospitality component, Concepcion says.
“I think at the end of the day, no matter how many various technologies we integrate, we still very much believe in traditional hospitality and ensuring that there’s great person-to-person interactions,” he says.
Director of Digital Marketing | Firebirds Wood Fired Grill
Christine Lorusso, director of digital marketing for Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, says she’s grateful her company embraces change and is open to the future of digital, “no matter how crazy it might sound today.
“Brands have to think ahead and live in the future to be successful. The digital world changes daily, and our guests expect us to evolve and change with it,” she says.
To that end, Firebirds is enhancing its customer relationships by inviting guests to share details like menu preferences, dietary restrictions, and dining history. With these data points, the restaurant can customize its outreach, whether through social media, emails, or dine-in experiences.
While Firebirds may be eager to adopt new technology and strategies, Lorusso says the brand makes sure it fully understands how new systems will benefit customers before pulling the trigger.
“You can do almost anything online these days, but you can only get a full-service, dine-out experience in restaurants,” she says. “This gives us, as digital marketers, the opportunity to apply digital trends to enhance the in-restaurant experience and make a difference across digital channels at the same time.”
Lorusso, who’s been on the Firebirds digital marketing team for seven years, offers the brand’s recent partnership with curbside pickup platform FlyBuy as an example. The launch progressed in phases over a year, starting with integrating the application into the existing online ordering platform. From there, Firebirds conducted internal tests and gathered feedback from team members and operators. After making necessary tweaks, the FlyBuy pickup feature went live, but initially only introduced the feature to the brand’s most frequent off-premises customers. Through a gradual rollout process, FlyBuy expanded throughout the system.
“We test, test, and test again. We get multiple internal departments and stakeholders involved before it’s rolled out,” Lorusso says. “Once we feel confident in the process, we segment which of our guests will be the first to test a new system and then expand this test, assuming it is successful, until it is live across all locations.”
Chief Marketing Officer | Puttshack
Innovation has been part of the Puttshack blueprint since day one, says chief marketing officer Susan Walmesley. In addition to globally inspired bites and drinks, the U.K.-based eatertainment concept offers visitors interactive mini golf with themed holes like life-size beer pong, air hockey, and Connect Four. Proprietary tech such as Track-a-Ball keeps score and records stats like number of strokes, hazards, and bonus points.
“Puttshack has taken everything you thought you knew about mini golf and flipped it on its head,” Walmesley says. “Even still, we’re in the process of discovering new ways to further elevate the Puttshack experience.”
Prior to rollout, each new initiative has its own dedicated teams and committees to ensure the many moving parts work together in synchronicity. (This strategy even extends to the F&B side with a tasting committee that evaluates new menu items.)
But for all the moving parts behind the scenes, Puttshack prioritizes a seamless guest experience, which Walmesley says is just as important as launching shiny new features.
“We prioritize making sure the guest experience remains simple, even when things are super complex on the backend,” she says. “That includes making the venues accessible to everyone, and allowing guests to book a mini golf game and confirm a dining reservation in advance.”
Walmesley adds that paying attention and keeping a pulse on each location helps inform what new advancements the team should explore.
“Restaurants can start by actively listening to the needs and desires of their guests,” Walmesley says. “We are very intentional about creating an exciting and unique experience for all our guests, whether they are coming to the venue for date night, a corporate event, an afternoon out with friends, or celebrating a big milestone.”
Fresh off a capital round of $150 million from BlackRock Investments, Puttshack plans to open new locations in Dallas, Denver, Houston, and more this year. It’s also working on what Walmesley describes as a “never-before-seen gaming component,” that will debut at one of the new stores.
Beverage Director | Barcelona Wine Bar
A key element to being a trendsetter is the ability to think on your feet—at least that’s how Emily Nevin-Giannini sees it.
As beverage director for Barcelona Wine Bar, she is constantly navigating the relationship between menu innovation and supply chain readiness. It’s something that’s become increasingly complex, not just because of the pandemic, but also because of Barcelona’s ever-expanding footprint.
After all, when Nevin-Giannini joined the team in 2011, the restaurant had yet to leave its home state of Connecticut; now it spans about 20 units across nearly a dozen states.
“From the beverage perspective, it’s been a real learning curve because it’s easy to make incredible choices with five restaurants, but it gets harder [as you grow] to make these decisions to support small, artisanal producers,” she says.
Nevin-Giannini says maintaining strong relationships with the right vendors while also pushing boundaries in its beverage programming can sometimes be akin to medical triage. But this balancing act—challenging as it may be—is part of what keeps the brand on the cutting edge.
Barcelona’s pioneering efforts will be especially apparent in the coming year. “Wine” is in the brand name, and to that end, Barcelona embraces all varieties, including the less common fortified wines, like sherry and vermouth. Now with the low-ABV movement heating up, Barcelona is ahead of the pack.
“What’s clear to us right now is that the low-ABV vibe is not going away, and we’re totally into it. I think there’s such an incredible opportunity for that, specifically with our program,” Nevin-Giannini says. “It’s exciting that everybody else is digging them, too.”
Looking to the year ahead, the beverage team will lean into sherry-based cocktails, like rebujito.
A popular drink in Spain’s Andalucía region, rebujito is traditionally made with lemon-lime soda, but Barcelona’s spin incorporates cider vermouth in addition to the requisite sherry. The drink can be served individually or presented in a porrón—a glass pitcher with a pointed spout that imbibers typically pour directly into their mouths without their lips touching.
“We’re bringing back the communal vibe and the sharing nature of it,” Nevin-Giannini says. “Our [beverage] program is so big and so deep; it’s just really about constantly looking at what’s new and how to make things even better.”
Senior Vice President of Marketing | SPB Hospitality
For any large restaurant conglomerate, the guest experience must remain at the forefront, says Lisa Lee, senior vice president of marketing at SPB Hospitality—which is why “hospitality” is in the umbrella group’s name and DNA.
SPB’s 16 brands include Logan’s Roadhouse, J Alexander’s, Stoney River, Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom, and a collection of restaurant-brewery brands, like Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery and Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant.
“At the end of the day, this is a people business. We learn the most when our servers and team members are able to look our guests in the eyes and make sure they are getting their needs met,” Lee says. “The technology and tools that help our teams should be in the background, or even out of sight. Technology should help us provide an improved experience and improve guest satisfaction.”
SPB is turning its focus to analyzing how consumers order food off-premises so it can optimize the guest experience when it comes to takeout and delivery. These changes include creating more convenient ways to pick up food, improving to-go packaging, and making upgrades to its loyalty program.
“We do not homogenize our brands when it comes to technology. We are focused on building our brand equity,” Lee says. “This means we need to work hard every day to maintain a unique identity at each of our brands. For example, as we look at the future of our brands and the use of handheld ordering devices, some of our concepts benefit from this technology, and others do not.”
This year, Lee foresees more technology coming into play at full-service restaurants, ranging from automated services to artificial intelligence and machine learning.
“It is such an exciting time to be in this industry, and I am looking forward to learning from our guest, learning from our competitors, and constantly challenging ourselves to improve the guest experience,” she adds.
Vice President of Marketing | Jinya Holdings
At Jinya Ramen Bar, quality and innovation are how the brand distinguishes itself from the packaged ramen found in many a college dorm. The restaurant’s chefs don’t take shortcuts; they even use Fuji water to prepare the broth, which slowly simmers for 20 hours, says Cai Palmiter, vice president of marketing at Jinya Holdings.
The brand hit the 50-unit mark last year and expects to reach 100 restaurants across the U.S. and Canada in 2023. Eventually, the goal is to expand to new markets overseas.
“We’ll always be the same concept that our founder, Tomo Takahashi, had when his family started this business in Japan,” Palmiter says.
Yet, evolution doesn’t need to come at the cost of losing a concept’s core identity. “We breathe and live the kaizen mindset, always looking for improvement to bring out the very best in the industry,” Palmiter says, referring to the Japanese business practice of constant improvement.
One area where the brand continues to evolve is technology. In 2022, Jinya partnered with Placer.ai, which provides retail foot traffic analytics and has helped Jinya discover desirable markets for expansion.
Jinya also tapped Yext, a New York–based tech company that integrates apps, online ordering, loyalty programs, and POS systems into a single, cloud-based network. Through this feature, systemwide updates require only the click of a button rather than a manual integration process.
“We’re automating every single thing as we grow exponentially. It makes everything easier,” Palmiter says.
But in the process of continuous improvement and change, it’s equally crucial to avoid disrupting restaurant operations and to clearly communicate those changes to the operators, she adds. The key to Jinya’s growth is “having an open mind to embrace such change, because no matter where you go, it’s inevitable; it’s out there,” she says. “You have to work around that and adapt to it.”
Director of Marketing | Thirsty Lion Gastropub
Scratch-made, multicultural menu items help differentiate Thirsty Lion Gastropub from competitors in the space, says Julia Thorn, director of marketing for the restaurant’s parent, Concept Entertainment Group (ceg).
Thirsty Lion has grown to nine locations across Oregon, Arizona, Texas, and Colorado and plans to expand in existing markets, such as Arizona and Texas. CEG also owns Grand Central Bowling in Portland, Oregon.
While Thirsty Lion highlights its “anti-chain” approach to growth, the modern pub concept benefits from being part of a larger platform, especially when it comes to innovation and advancing technology. For example, Thirsty Lion implemented Toast handhelds for contactless payments in fall 2018 to streamline ordering and increase efficiency, which allowed servers to focus on improving the guest experience.
As CEG integrates technology with its operations and payment processes, “the technological advance does not replace human service—it complements it,” Thorn says. “It’s important to unify the guest experience across the physical and digital channels.”
Since the pandemic forced full-service operators to invest in their takeout and off-premises business, Thorn advises restaurants not to think of in-house dining and takeout as being at odds with each other.
“You can find a way to satisfy both categories of customers by perfecting your takeout systems without compromising the in-house experiential aspect of the business,” she says.
From Thorn’s point of view, crafting creative content and relevant messaging directed to target demographics is the biggest trend in the restaurant industry for 2023. The goal is to leverage the power of digital so operators gain visibility through past transactions, and can then create more personalized experiences.
“People are paying more for their dining experiences, and as a result, expectations have risen,” Thorn says. “Maintaining a seamless experience with relevant communication will play a critical role in purchasing decisions today and building long-term loyalty in the future.”