The full-service restaurant segment runs both wide and deep. It encompasses major chains with hundreds of locations, as well as single-unit mom and pops that stay small but no less extraordinary. In terms of shaking up the greater industry, perhaps no group does it quite as well as the up-and-coming, emerging brands. With each new store opening, their reach and influence expands, and successful concepts also improve as they grow by streamlining processes and refining menus.
Because these restaurants have the potential to scale far beyond their home markets and change the larger dining landscape, it’s worth highlighting the ones that could be the next generation of top brands. Last year was hardly a hospitable business environment, but these 20 restaurants under 20 units have demonstrated enough determination and brand differentiation to be worth betting on.
So without further adieu, here is the first annual report of FSR’s Next-Gen Brands.
During the pandemic, Yavonne Sarber and her team at Agave & Rye Tequila and Bourbon Hall have been quiet about their success, out of consideration to others in the industry. As restaurants across the country struggle and some even shutter permanently, Sarber knows the story of her fledgling brand is a rarity.
HQ: Covington, Kentucky
Marking its 10th anniversary this year, Houston–based Crust Pizza Co. has eight new locations in the works for 2021. As a natural competitor to other sit-down pizza chains like CPK and Brixx, the brand touts the thin, crispy crust of its personal-size pies while also incorporating casual Italian favorites, such as hot subs, pasta classics, and appetizers like garlic knots.
HQ: The Woodlands, Texas
Landing two years in a row on the Inc. 5000 list, Sedona Taphouse continues to pursue growth through franchising, which has taken it to markets across the country; two more stores are already in the works for Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Founder and CEO Dennis Barbaro is an alum of Outback Steakhouse and Bonefish Grill, which undoubtedly shapes Sedona Taphouse’s expansion strategy.
HQ: Richmond, Virginia
Thirsty Lion already had a solid foundation going into 2020 and was firing on all cylinders. In the space of two months it opened two new units in Phoenix and was in the process of moving its headquarters to Scottsdale, Arizona. It had also just surpassed the $50 million system-wide sales marker, with each location averaging between $5–$7 million annually.
HQ: Scottsdale, Arizona
Following in the footsteps of other tapas concepts like Barcelona and Jaleo, Boqueria presents a mix of small plates and traditional Spanish fare like paella. A few years into its operation, the brand tapped Barcelona native and James Beard Award semi-finalist Marc Vidal as executive chef, thus solidifying its reputation for authentic Catalan classics.
HQ: New York City
Despite changing hands twice in the last three years, Barcelona remains steadfast in its core menu of Spanish tapas and more than 400 wine varieties. Long-time company man Adam Halberg took the helm in fall 2019 and is guiding the concept toward deliberate, measured growth. Last year, Barcelona launched online specialty shop Conserva to help its restaurants and its partner artisans and producers through COVID-19.
HQ: Westport, Connecticut
Despite the challenges over the past year, Angry Crab Shack remains committed to hitting the 100-unit mark; the brand just pushed back its deadline two years to 2025. That confidence stems from a strong brand identity that distinguishes the Arizona-based chain from the competition. It specializes in the perennially beloved seafood category but at a price well below steak-and-seafood houses and other upscale concepts. Plus, Angry Crab Shack embraces punchy flavor profiles—mostly of Cajun and Asian influence—that attract more adventurous diners.
HQ: Mesa, Arizona
The recent success of Grumpy’s Restaurant is one of those Cinderella stories that the industry thrives on; Daniel DeLeon purchased the family-owned concept in 2017 and staged a comprehensive transformation. While Grumpy’s stayed true to a “traditional Americana” identity, the menu, operations, and advertising strategy were entirely revamped. In 2019 it began franchising, with the first such location debuting during the pandemic. Three more units are in the pipeline for 2021.
HQ: Orange Park, Florida
Bottleneck Management Restaurant Group had been in operation for 15 years before it introduced City Works Eatery & Pour House as the company’s growth vehicle. With its large footprints, City Works has historically targeted real estate near arenas and other event venues. Despite the unprecedented events of 2020, the brand was able to move ahead with two openings last year in Disney Springs, Florida, and Watertown, Massachusetts.
Within the FB Society portfolio (née Front Burner Restaurants), Whiskey Cake stands apart as a multiunit operation with two out-of-state locations in Oklahoma and Florida. The brand prides itself on a slow-cooking approach and an extensive selection of garden-to-glass cocktails. During the pandemic, Whiskey Cake not only brought on new president and COO Ray Risley, it also opened another location.
HQ: Plano, Texas
Named in honor of its signature half-bacon, half-ground beef patties, Slater’s 50/50 has gained a reputation for its over-the-top menu innovations, including a gold-dusted burger, pizza burger, and PB&J burger. The brand was able to charge forward in 2020 with three new California locations and its debut store in Denver, expanding its system to five states.
HQ: Los Angeles
Maggie McFly’s may be approaching the 30-year mark, but it’s in a new, aggressive era of expansion. In the last five years it’s doubled its footprint and expanded beyond its New England base with two Virginia outposts. Solely owned by founder Ray Harper, the micro-chain’s extensive menu—at about 180 items—has long been a brand differentiator.
HQ: Southbury, Connecticut
The Sin City–based brand puts a star-studded twist on the confectionery model, with celebrity endorsements hailing from internet influencers to musicians to even the Kardashians. Sugar Factory has also pursued growth on the international stage; it’s opened five locations in the United Arab Emirates. Now the concept is testing the quick-service arena with Sugar Factory Express.
HQ: Las Vegas
Units: 16 Domestic / 5 International
What started as a 15-seat counter bar in the heart of SoHo has amassed fans far beyond the Big Apple with locations in Las Vegas and Disneyland as well as Europe, the Middle East, and Singapore. Black Tap embraces an ’80s/’90s spirit with retro tunes, neon lights, and graffiti-filled walls while the menu dishes out over-the-top milkshakes and creative pub fare.
HQ: New York City
Units: 5 Domestic / 9 International
Amid the many breakfast players, Big Bad Breakfast has certain bragging rights on the culinary front. Inspired by the diners and old-fashioned pharmacies of his childhood, James Beard Award–winning chef John Currence opened the first restaurant in 2008 with a menu of classic breakfast fare, featuring his own twist on dishes without the use of preservatives or artificial ingredients.
HQ: Birmingham, Alabama
Via 313 received a significant boon in 2020 in the form of a $100 million investment from Savory Restaurant Fund, whose portfolio includes The Crack Shack, Mo’Bettahs, R&R BBQ, and Swig. Although its name sports the Detroit area code, the brand currently operates exclusively in Austin, Texas, with three brick-and-mortars and two permanent trailer units. With cash on hand, Via 313 plans to take its Detroit-style pizza beyond Texas borders.
HQ: Austin, Texas
True to its moniker, Big Whiskey’s stocks each location with more than 120 varieties of the spirit, which has helped set it apart from competitors within the New American cuisine space. COVID-19 did little to hamper the brand, which was posting year-over-year sales growth in its core Midwestern markets by last autumn. What’s more: Big Whiskey’s plans to open three to six new units annually over the next five years.
HQ:& Ozark, Missouri
For more than three decades, Silver Diner has charmed guests with its nostalgic yet fresh ambiance. But despite this retro personality, it embraced a farm-to-table ethos long before the movement became mainstream. Eager to welcome guests back for on-site dining, the brand has incorporated new technologies like UV light sterilizers and air purification systems. During the pandemic, it also managed to open another location in the greater D.C. area.
HQ: Rockville, Maryland
Over the past decade, The Toasted Yolk has focused on hyper-local expansion in and around the Houston area. In addition to opening four new units in 2020, the breakfast brand also posted a weekly double-digit sales increase year over year by the final quarter of last year. Now it’s eyeing Alabama, Georgia, and Florida for franchise opportunities with well-funded and experienced business partners.
Although Taffer’s Tavern only debuted in Alpharetta, Georgia, last fall, with a name like Jon Taffer—entrepreneur, hospitality pro, and host of “Bar Rescue”—behind the brand, it’s all but guaranteed to go far. Already it has multiunit deals secured in the Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Boston areas, with 10 different locations in development. The bar-centric tavern serves elevated pub fare, but the beverage program, including Taffer’s signature creations, takes the spotlight.
HQ: Las Vegas