Special Reports

Nominate an Emerging Brand for the FSR 50

Help us find the hottest brands changing the game and growing fast.

Every August, FSR releases its signature report of 50 restaurant brands to watch: The FSR 50. In recent years the list has taken on the tilt of highlighting emerging brands with 50 or fewer locations and growing fast. The success of each report spotlights dynamic emerging restaurant brands that are changing full-service dining.

Our team is getting ready to research the upcoming year’s list and we need your help. The 2019 FSR 50 is open to reader submissions now—to make sure we don’t miss any brand worthy of the honor. To qualify, brands must meet the following qualifications, while embodying the characteristics listed below.

We’re looking for emerging brands with 50 or fewer locations, that are growing fast, and changing the game. These brands:

  • Have chef-driven menus
  • Provide premium hospitality
  • Focus on experience rather than value
  • Source high-quality or local ingredients
  • Have ambitions other than growth or profit
  • Are cornerstones in the community
  • Are innovators and industry disruptors

If you know a brand that’s a perfect fit, click here to access the submission form. Submissions are due by 11:59 p.m. ET on April 14, 2019. Questions? Email LauraD@FSRmagazine.com.

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Business Trends to Make 2019 Your Best Year Yet

Big predictions for big business moves in 2019

This is the only primer you’ll need to keep the motor humming in 2019—we surveyed the industry to find the biggest business trends and the tiny but very significant details to make this year your restaurant’s best year yet.

No. 1 Ding Dong Delivery


The Trend:
To-Go and Delivery

What You’re Seeing:
The kitchen stays busy filling online orders.

Our Prediction:
Prepare for more to-go orders.

Busier kitchens and quieter dining rooms are what restaurateurs saw in 2018. That trend is positioned to grow even more in the year ahead. Why? Millennials may be cooking less and eating out more, but those meals are ordered as food to-go.

In 2019, to-go and delivery orders could drive restaurants to rearrange menus and redesign physical spaces to better accommodate the volume of online ordering and pick-ups. Think Chili’s and DINE Brands’ move in 2018 to open more stand-alone to-go shops.

The to-go and delivery proposition is an attractive one, on the surface at least, says Dave Bennett, CEO of Mirus Restaurant Solutions. Given competitive pressures, anything that can add to top line growth is of utmost importance to operators.

The increase in online ordering is reducing the friction of the increase in to-go and delivery orders and by increasing order volume—restaurants are still making money, but less comes from sit-down covers. Restaurants need to be prepared, says Steven Sperry, CEO of smart food kiosk manufacturer Minnow. Sperry says restaurants should consider reducing seating, open pickup only locations, or even adding drive-throughs.

“Time is really the new currency today,” says Nicky Kruse, strategist with The Culinary Edge in San Francisco. “I can get my food at the push of a button on my app. That is the new value over the amount of food I can get for x amount of dollars. It’s the value menu of today.”

For Kruse’s clients, this means focusing more on the quality of the food delivered to preserve the on-premises experience for off-premises consumption.

“Time has become our most valuable resource,” echoes Louis Maskin, Kruse’s colleague at The Culinary Edge. Millennials and Gen Z seek out restaurants they know are app-friendly where they can get breakfast, lunch, or dinner without a single human interaction. “We have so many clients come to us for help with continuing their brand story through the delivery and pickup platforms. It’s about making sure the packaging has the right pop of color, message, or note that continues this journey of the brand all the way from start to finish outside of their four walls. Customers need to be able to take a picture of that food item on their couch and still have the inclusivity with the brand without being inside the store.”

The to-go and delivery trend dovetails into all three of the big business trends we’re seeing this year: traffic is declining, but when customers do come in, they want an experience; meanwhile; the entire process is getting streamlined by automation.

No. 2 Bye Bye, Bricks


The Trend:
Traffic Declines

What You’re Seeing:
Fewer butts in seats.

Our Prediction:
Think differently about your brick and mortar.

The restaurant industry’s decline in in-person visits is perhaps larger than an independent restaurant can see. The data Bennett gathered from his clients, for example, show the industry three years into a declining traffic pattern.

“It’s fluctuated for sure. There’s been worse periods and better periods, but it has pretty much been in negative territory for 36 months now,” Bennett says. This makes it a systemic problem, he says, not just a brand-level problem. And the fact is, the decline is not sustainable for a mature industry.

It begs the question, is the brick and mortar model really the best investment when delivery is turning out more of the profits? Do kitchens and dining rooms still belong together? Bennett wonders if the answer in the long-term is no.

“Delivery out of a sit-down restaurant is probably not the optimal investment model, and these gray buildings we read about in some cities—kind of a commercial space or industry space with a dozen kitchens and all of those kitchens are being delivered by one fleet of folks—could be a superior business model,” he says. “Maybe it’s that the brick and mortar are fundamentally different in the future. Is it possible that you go into a restaurant someday and the kitchen isn’t even there?”

But the kitchen seems to be what restaurants previously revolved around. How did we get here? The to-go and delivery trend appears only a symptom when Bennett looks at the big picture. It’s a combination of lifestyle adjustments on the consumer side.

“There’s much more awareness and sensitivity about quality of food, sourcing of food, where did it go, who touched it, a level of scrutiny and appreciation of those factors that are unprecedented in the industry in my 40 years,” he says. “It used to just be the taste of the food and the service provided.”

People want more than a tasty meal when they do dine out, and it’s not just millennials in the driver seat when it comes to the decline.

“I’m a baby boomer but I’m finding myself locked in on Sundays getting delivery—I’m watching too much football,” he jokes. “But if this trend is long-term and the volume continues to grow at the rates we’re seeing, restaurateurs need to ask themselves how they can best service the market.”

No. 3 Years of Experience


The Trend:
Experiential Dining

What You’re Seeing:
Your brand or a competing brand is driving traffic with promotions that go beyond the plate.

Our Prediction:
The experiential and eatertainment segment is fertile for innovation and expansion.

It’s clear that it takes more to get diners to come in and stay for a meal, let alone become regulars. Take Pacific Catch as a case study. The West Coast-style seafood restaurant in the Bay Area was known for poke for at least a decade before the poke craze hit the fast-casual segment. As soon as we hit peak poke, Pacific Catch started losing traffic dramatically. The restaurant worked with its parent company, The Culinary Edge, to get its groove back.

“We created this whole new story around fresh, sustainable seafood in raw form—the raw bar tower,” Kruse said. “It was a whole new interaction, a whole new, shareable, fun, useful energy.”

You can’t get the Pacific Catch seafood tower experience in your living room. If you want that totally ‘grammable tower of fresh seafood in your stories, you have to go into the restaurant.

“You can only get that experience if you go in-store,” Maskin says. “You’re creating reasons, events, and occasions to come instore and experience.”

Meanwhile, in Dallas, Kyle Noonan and FreeRange Concepts co-founder Josh Sepkowitz, are using experiential dining to build successful brands that keep growing. When asked why his brands focus on experience, Noonan says the internet.

“This is no surprise to anyone—the internet is disrupting the way we do business and shop and eat,” he says. “Whether it be ordering something on Amazon or siting on my couch with the few clicks of a button on my phone, I can have everything delivered to me in 20 or 30 minutes. The best way to counteract that would be to fill in the gap left by having everything—creating an experience, a reason for someone to get off the couch and come to you. That’s the one thing that can’t be delivered by delivery drivers.”

FreeRange restaurants provide live music venues and dining with dogs—and yes, those experiences are incredibly ‘grammable. Why music and dogs? Well, it’s kind of a no-brainer.

“We sat down and said, What is compelling? What are people passionate about? Let’s target those things that people really get excited about,” Noonan says. “Music is one of those things, especially live music. People are passionate about their dogs, so let’s create an experience around that.”

But even with all the bells and whistles, the service that Bennett says was the foundation of the restaurant experience still reigns supreme. Noonan sees it with his restaurants’ guests, too.

“We are very close to our guests, and we listen to them,” he says. “We have a direct dialogue with them to find out how we’re doing, and that feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.”

No. 4 The Robot Did It

Spyce Restaurant


What You’re Seeing:
Gadgets and gizmos galore.

Our Prediction:
Those shiny gadgets won't replace your service staff just yet, but use them where you can to increase efficiency and cut costs.

The word automation in the restaurant world conjures images of Jetson-era robots preparing and serving food in lieu of humans and we’re not there yet—although a few restaurants have gone so far as to bring in a robot that can toss a salad or sautée the satay. Spyce, for example, opened in Boston in 2018 with the restaurant guidance of Daniel Boulud and technical know-how of MIT. The use of technology to create efficiency in restaurants isn’t a bell-and-whistle deal like it may seem—those efficiencies can drive down cost.

Katie Haggart of San Francisco-based strategy group af&co calls it the “robotic restaurant revolution,” and says we’re just at the beginning.

“Robots are a huge trend currently and only increasing,” she says.

The first why is substantial: cost. The cost of labor is going up as more states mandate higher minimum wages. Paying your staff $15 an hour could cost thousands more per month—the same amount you’d invest up-front in a piece of automation technology that would keep on giving.

“By moving to automation, by having robots make food, you significantly reduce labor costs, and you also win on time,” says Kruse of The Culinary Edge. “It’s a huge time savings that automation provides for people in the restaurant space.”

But the upfront cost can be too much, and the technology too daunting to approach just yet. Andrew Freeman, founder of af&co, says just bringing more technology into the kitchen is a step toward the future.

“That’s displaced labor, but the clear fact of the matter is there just isn’t enough labor out there, and we’re looking at robotics to alleviate some of the stress,” he says.

For now, it sounds like everyone is comfortable with robotics in the back of the house, but not necessarily in the front. While Bear Robotics has introduced food-running robot Penny, some may not be ready for a robot to make the table drops.

“From a restaurant experience perspective, I don’t know if I would want my food being delivered by a robot,” Freeman says. “I think in certain concepts it could work, but I definitely see [automation] more from a point of view of alleviating stress in the kitchen.”

The second why for exploring automation is the inherent advantage robots have over humans that might become more desirable as the labor pool and consumer demand continue to change: consistency. Maskin of The Culinary Edge points to how the mood of an employee can impact restaurant operations.

“With automation you’re really able to eliminate the people factor or human error,” he says. “At the same time, you also lose the human touch. But automation really removes a huge factor of chance and provides a consistency for procedures, timing, and liability. We are not seeing mom-and-pop places adopting this type of technology. It’s really the bigger players with the expense accounts who can just explore this type of investment.”

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Inside the Rise of Restaurant Automation

People are an essential element of the hospitality business. Use smart machines, including robots, to augment what a restaurant can offer.

The menu at Boston fast-casual spot Spyce Kitchen is rife with personal touches from head chef Sam Benson. The Lebanese chicken-and-lentil bowl reminds him of the smell of his mother toasting coriander to grind with cinnamon when he was a child. The former executive sous chef at New York’s Cafe Boulud also loves how the aroma of ras el hanout fills the restaurant whenever someone orders the chickpea- and tomato-based Moroccan bowl. He thought he’d coax the most flavor out of the spicy Latin bowl by braising the black beans with chilies, onions, garlic, and toasted spices.

But when customers walk up to a kiosk and select one of seven $7.50 grain- and vegetable-based bowls, they won’t see Benson or any other human frying up these carefully selected ingredients. Instead, a robotic chef with seven magnetically heated woks and finely tuned temperature and time sensors tosses and sears the ingredients and dumps them into compostable bowls to be garnished and delivered to the customer, all in less than three minutes. Hot water jets instantly scrub the woks clean before the next order is cooked. 

Benson was recruited by fine-dining chef Daniel Boulud, who signed on as Spyce’s culinary director and investor this spring after four Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering students approached him with the idea. There are humans on staff at Spyce, too—a GM, a guide who greets and assists customers, and a garde manager who garnishes bowls and passes them to customers, and helps the robot replenish ingredients.

Spyce Restaurant

At Spyce Kitchen, a robotic chef with seven magnetically heated woks and finely tuned temperature and time sensors tosses and sears the ingredients and dumps them into compostable bowls.

“There’s a challenge with a lot of restaurants to improve efficiency,” says chief operating officer and one of the four founders, Kale Rogers. “We’ve taken the repetitive hot-cooking process, standardized it, and taken it out of the way to allow people to focus on hospitality—chatting with customers, adding finishing touches and handing the food to people with a smile. What we looked to optimize was the repetitive tasks we could do with a robot.”

Driving efficiency throughout the process (ingredients are prepped at a commissary beforehand) allows Spyce to staff strategically based on demand, Rogers says. 

Then again, being a fast-casual concept, service jostles with speed, convenience and price more so than in a full-service setting. 

“I think the concern [about robotics in restaurants] comes from this notion of trying to replace people in general,” he acknowledges. “For the customer experience and hospitality aspect, I hope that will never be taken away. We might be able to partially automate or improve the cooking side, but customer experience is something people are intrinsically so good at.”

It’s a point of contention for full-service restaurants looking to automation to make certain processes easier or more cost effective—whether through table-mounted self-pay tablets, predictive scheduling, or, yes, robots. Will it make humans obsolete?

“I recognize that there’s a lot of people that want to be first to do things,” says David Morton, co-owner of DMK Restaurants in Chicago, which employs 1,000 people across 10 concepts. His father Arnie Morton started Morton’s Restaurant Group. “Restaurants are very en vogue, there’s low barrier to entry—a lot like other bubbles of my lifetime, from real estate in the ’90s to tech in 2001. But I would caution operators about the dehumanization of restaurants through robotics. The industry has evolved, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed. It’s about people.”

Spyce Restaurant

Spyce Restaurant’s Moroccan Bowl.

People are expensive

Restaurants using automation often cite customer satisfaction as the driving force behind automation, but the affordability of the technology and rising labor costs are undoubtedly contributing to the trend, too. In 2015, 14 cities and states approved $15 minimum wages—double the current federal minimum. According to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by Fortune magazine, 17 percent of Americans will live in a state or metro area with a $15 minimum wage in less than five years. 

“The biggest pain points for restaurants are not only labor supply, but also managing people,” says Juan Higueros, COO of Bear Robotics. The Redwood City, California, company is piloting a small learning robot named Penny that helps servers run food and bus tables in eight to 10 Bay Area restaurants, including Pizza Hut, this fall. 

CEO John Ha, a former Google engineer, designed the robot after assuming ownership of a Korean restaurant in Milpitas, California, where he got a crash course in restaurant labor—filling in for dishwashers, cooks, and servers when someone called in sick or quit unexpectedly—and thought robotics could help. 

The robot, which costs about a third of the salary of a minimum-wage employee per month, is designed to navigate a restaurant’s crowded, narrow pathways using only forward movement and sensors to avoid obstacles. Staff program the location of each table and the kitchen, and the robot makes itself a map of the restaurant. Servers use a tablet to summon the robot whenever food is ready, telling it where to go. 

Like Rogers, Higueros stresses that it’s meant to assist, not replace, people. “This is meant to augment the people you have—make their jobs easier and take on routine things they do,” he says. “That way, the people you’re employing are more social and adding more value to your concept.”

Noting that customers don’t become regulars because of the robot, Higueros says servers actually benefit most from Penny—for the new skills they gain as much as the extra set of robotic hands. “They have their own assistant they’re managing,” Higueros says. “Once they start using it, it becomes a natural part of their workflow.”

Bear Robotics has a specific target customer in mind—casual-dining concepts with footprints of 2,500 square feet and above. 

Bear Robotics

Penny, a robot that helps servers run food, costs a third of the salary of a minimum wage employee per month.

A boon for casual?

Indeed, the category has already widely embraced one form of automation: self-pay tablets, now mounted on tables at roughly 8,000 eateries nationwide—such as Chili’s, Olive Garden, and Outback Steakhouse. Not having to wait for servers can expedite the dining experience by six to nine minutes per table; plus, servers with customers using tablets see a 15 percent increase in tips, according to leading provider Ziosk. The lack of human interaction in the ordering process appears to encourage upselling, too. Ziosk competitor Buzztime claims that tables with its self-service POS system spend 21 percent more per check.

It’s not all good news, though. More customers are filling out the built-in customer satisfaction surveys, which are logged automatically and anonymously—the latter to the detriment of wait staff. More restaurant operators are using the data to assess job performance, making an already difficult working environment even more unfair, dredging up the sorts of personal attacks one might read from a long-winded, disgruntled Yelper. 

Morton wouldn’t consider using self-pay tablets at any DMK restaurants, agreeing that they’re better suited to large casual-dining chains. DMK has found a place for automation, however, at Marshall’s Landing, the cafe, lounge, and eatery it opened in 2017 as part of Vornado Realty Trust’s redesign of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. The sprawling second-floor space mainly serves employees of the massive, tech-forward commercial building.

“Vornado wanted something that didn’t feel like a traditional restaurant, more a center of gravity … where people could go and enjoy a meal or coffee with limited interruptions and maximum service,” Morton says. “So our challenge was, how do we make this as accessible as possible without being intrusive?”

The answer was Kallpods, or small, RFID-enabled call buttons created by New York design firm A+I that customers can push to summon a server or get their check. They’re situated on tables throughout the cafe and lounge, and a portion of the eatery. Pushing one prompts a special device on servers’ belts or in their aprons to vibrate and display the table number. 

“There are so many group outings and one-on-one coffee meetings,” Morton says. “In that environment you want to feel taken care of without interrupting your conversation or presentation.”

Interestingly, there’s one place consumers won’t find the buttons: the restaurant dining room. This was initially because DMK merely hadn’t purchased enough. 

“Then we found that guests, who always show us the way, actually preferred not to have them,” Morton says. Moreover, despite that Kallpods have optimized Marshall’s Landing staff and enabled servers to make more money, Morton stresses it was a one-time solution to a unique problem rather than a panacea. 

“Restaurants aren’t just about putting food in front of the customer for the lowest cost possible to the business,” Morton says. “There are so many other inputs, including the culture of restaurants, training and development of people, and the art, very much so from a human standpoint. And culinary arts are thriving and will continue to.” 

Eyes On Automation

Automation isn't just about robot cooks and servers. Below are four automation innovations already in use at restaurants around the country.

Pay with Your Face

Brands like tech-centric holding company Cali Group are taking self-pay tablets a step further. Cali recently rolled out a face-based payment pilot program at its fast casual CaliBurger in Pasadena that enables customers to order, pay, log into their loyalty programs, and even reorder custom meals.

PYO Drinks

Building on the success of Coca-Cola's Freestyle machines, self-serving beer bars like Tapster in Chicago and Clouds Brewing in Durham, North Carolina, are jumping on the pour-your-own trend as a means to cut down on wait times and put control in the customer's hands. Customers pay by the ounce using an RFID-enabled card or wristband they purchase upon entering the bar.

Seamless Scheduling

Optimized staffing can save a restaurant thousands per month in labor costs and hours. Software providers like 7shifts analyze restaurants' historical scheduling data, then automatically schedule employees based on skill level, roles performed, and demand.

Mobile Mania

About 69 percent of consumers order food using online platforms, according to research from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and media platform Viggle. Various platforms support different levels of automation. Apps like Square Order enable customers to pre-order food and customize pickup times; online ordering sites with integrated payments like eHungry allow restaurants to decide how and when orders come in; while apps like Splick-it integrate with a restaurant's existing POS and support beacon-based ordering, email marketing, and existing loyalty programs.

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America's Top 50 Emerging Restaurant Chains

FSR’s annual list of high-potential, performance-proven full-service brands with 50 locations or fewer and growing fast.

This 2018 collection of 50 emerging chains with 50 or fewer locations offers plenty of insight into how a full-service restaurant concept can grow. We’ve got the numbers driving the most exciting chains—and tips that will help your growing brand chart its own world domination.

[DOWNLOAD] 2017 and 2018 FSR 50 reports in PDF format

Check out last year's FSR 50 Emerging Chains report

RARE Steakhouse

Madison, WI

3 units With locations in Madison, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., RARE Steakhouse has quickly established itself as one of the premier dining experiences in each market it operates in.

Founding Farmers

Washington, DC

7 units Providing scratch-made, responsibly sourced American food isn’t new. Doing so under an ownership model that brings the farmers to the table—excuse the wordplay—is. The brand is poised to hit 10 units in 2019.

The Ainsworth

New York, NY

7 units All of The Ainsworth’s locations offer classic American fare, signature cocktails, and stimulating decor in a mixed space of restaurant, bar, lounge and events areas.

Thirsty Lion Gastropub & Grill

Portland, OR

8 units Getting local is the Lion’s specialty—each location caters to its market, with queso in Texas and charcuterie in the Northwest. Giving guests a true gastropub experience is leading the Lion to expand.

Public School On Tap

Woodland Hills, CA

8 units This chef-driven gastropub delivers an education in the art of food and beer. Is it the Bacon Cheddar Tots, known affectionately as “infamous” by the restaurant, that’s pushing the brand to expand?

b Restaurants—burgers.beer.bourbon

Hartford, CT

9 units It has taken b Restaurants the last decade to expand to nine locations, but the next couple of years are heating up for the brand that was founded in 2006 around the belief that great food and drink bring people together.


Roswell, GA

9 units After its founding in 2010, Babalu has taken the Southeast by storm using hyper-local produce and products for its made-from-scratch dishes. Each Latin-inspired dish has unique Southern flair.

Zea Rotisserie & Grill

New Orleans, LA

9 units Started in 1997 by three New Orleans chefs inspired by rotisserie cooking in Europe, Zea has continued to turn out fresh menus that delight guests at an affordable price point.


Miami, FL

10 units The Italian brand landed in the U.S. with its headquarters in Miami and has locations in four states. Piola means “meeting point” in Piedmontese (a Venetian dialect) and is bringing Americans to the table for authentic, artisanal pizza.

Pinstripes Bistro Bowling Bocce

Chicago, IL

10 units Pairing an upscale Italian-American menu with bowling and bocce has been a recipe for success at Pinstripes, which expects to expand to 15 units in 2019.

The Matador

Seattle, WA

11 units Scratch-made Mexican cuisine and an assortment of tequilas are behind the Matador’s drive to develop new markets in its five-state footprint.

Stoney River Steakhouse

Nashville, TN

12 units Beef accounts for 70 percent of sales at Stoney River Steakhouse, a J. Alexander brand that takes its steaks very seriously.

Redlands Grill

Nashville, TN

12 units Another J. Alexander brand, Redlands Grill has been slowly taking over J. Alexander locations, with at least two more on the way this year.

Blue Sushi Sake Grill

Omaha, NE

Blue Sushi Sake Grill

Blue Sushi is on a roll.

13 units This sushi brand is on a roll as it climbs the ranks closer to the 20-unit mark. Read more about Blue Sushi Sake Grill.

Sauce Pizza and Wine

Scottsdale, AZ

13 units Sauce is putting the fine in fine casual with its focus on quality food made fresh daily and looking to add six units in the next two years.

Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House

Southlake, TX

13 units How a fine-dining brand made its offerings more accessible and affordable—a move that’s been a success that keeps growing.

Ocean Prime

Columbus, OH

14 units Known as the fine-dining jewel in the Cameron Mitchell Restaurants portfolio, Ocean Prime is an ideal place to socialize, talk business, celebrate, or indulge, with a vibrant energy that is driving the brand forward.

110 Grill

Westford, MA

14 units The casual yet upscale atmosphere at 110 Grill is complete with open kitchens, large horseshoe-shaped bars, and outdoor patios with fire pits. All this combined with dishes made from scratch on seasonal menus is propelling the brand.


Chicago, IL

14 units What’s brunch without a runny yolk? Yolk is a brunch brand that pushes the envelope with new ideas, creative breakfasts, specialty juices, private label premium coffee, and new locations that are hot and ready.

Tupelo Honey Café

Asheville, NC

15 units The experience at Tupelo Honey Café embodies Southern hospitality in the Blue Ridge Mountains that keeps customers coming back for more chef-driven comfort food.


New York, NY

15 units A blend of the modern steakhouse and chic lounge, STK’s fine dining experience brings superior quality and tradition to major cities.

Cody’s Original Roadhouse

Tampa, FL

16 units The simplicity of the Cody’s mantra—“Just Plain Good Food”—is just what the diner ordered, taking the fondness for the familiar to its finest.

Oggi’s Sports Brewhouse

San Clemente, CA

16 units This 27-year-old, family-owned pizza concept has defined craft brewing, fresh pizza, and brewpub favorites in a sports-themed atmosphere. The brews are award-winning; Oggi’s brews have brought home more than 50 medals in beer competitions.

The Flying Biscuit

Atlanta, GA

16 units After 20 years and 16 locations, The Flying Biscuit still maintains its quintessential neighborhood feel with its Southern-inspired comfort food menu.


Norwalk, CT

Tom McGovern

Bartaco is headed to the Del Frisco's portfolio of concepts.

17 units On the edge of acquisition, bartaco still knows what sort of experience its looking to create for its guests and is sticking to it. Read more about bartaco.


Harrisburg, PA

17 units It’s been 10 years since Arooga’s opened its first location in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The passion to offer guests more is still driving the brand as Arooga’s begins to offer the latest technology such as table payment and an app-based jukebox.

The Lost Cajun

Covington, LA

17 units This family-friendly concept with authentic Cajun food strives for a true hole-in-the-wall vibe despite its 17-location success that’s still growing.

J. Alexander’s

Nashville, TN

19 units A low table-to-server ratio is the trademark of concepts in the J. Alexander’s Holdings group, and nowhere is that more evident than in the signature brand.


Baton Rouge, LA

19 units It’s game day every day at Walk On’s where Louisiana fare meets sports bar flair by a brand that aims to more than double its footprint in two years.

Zinburger Wine & Burger Bar

Livingston, NJ

20 units This upscale boutique burger concept offers gourmet burgers and perfectly paired wine selections.

Bubba’s 33

Fishers, IA

21 units Pizza, burgers, beer, and sports rule at Bubba’s, named for the founder’s nickname. Kent Taylor, founder of Texas Roadhouse restaurants, created Bubba’s in 2013 and has been expanding rapidly.

Eddie V’s

Orlando, FL

21 units Darden proves a corporate group can deliver fine-dining excellence with this upscale seafood concept that continues to expand.

Umami Burger

Los Angeles, CA

22 units This over-the-top burger shop has a cult following and big plans to spread that cult around the globe. Along with international expansion, the brand plans to add 40 units in 2019.

Rock & Brews

Manhattan Beach, CA

22 units Rock legends and local brewery rockstars meet at Rock & Brews, a growing Southern California brand with a family friendly atmosphere serving American food.

Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern

Columbus, OH

23 units Founded in 2002, the sister company within the Cameron Mitchell Restaurants group calls itself a casual-dining experience, but each location features an executive chef guiding from-scratch menus.

JINYA Ramen Bar

Los Angeles, CA

23 units Realizing the need for authentic ramen in the U.S., Tokyo restaurateur Tomonori Takahashi opened JINYA’s first location in Los Angeles in 2010. Despite fast growth—12 new units this year and 25 planned for next—JINYA is known for a slow-cooked approach to ramen.


Dallas, TX

24 units Family-friendly casual dining and the high-energy sports bar vibe coincide at Boston’s, which has specialized in relaxing atmospheres and scratch food for over 50 years and is still growing.

Lazy Dog

Huntington Beach, CA

Lazy Dog

Lazy Dog is leading the next wave of casual dining concepts into the future.

26 units While the name lends itself to the casual atmosphere, the growth strategy at Lazy Dog is anything but lazy. Read more about Lazy Dog.

Carolina Ale House

Raleigh, NC

30 units The parent company of Carolina Ale House—LM Restaurants, owned by Lou and Joy Moshakos—is truly a family-operated business. The Moshakos’ three daughters help to run the growing restaurant empire.

Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant

Chicago, IL

31 units Chef-driven cuisine isn’t the only thing driving success at Cooper’s Hawk. The winery produces 5 million bottles annually and has won more than 300 local, national, and international awards.


Denver, CO

31 units Up from 20 units in last year’s FSR 50, Snooze is growing sustainably with the goal of being an asset to each of the communities it operates in.

Famous Toastery

Charlotte, NC

32 units Best friends turned business partners Brian Burchill and Robert Maynard opened the first Famous Toastery in 2005 and quickly grew to three locations. Up 10 units from last year, the duo is crushing their goal to break through the otherwise boring casual breakfast segment.

Native Grill & Wings

Chandler, AZ

33 units This family-friendly wing spot has been around since 1979 but is anything but old news. Coupling America’s longtime love of chicken wings with new strategies—a mobile app, loyalty program, online ordering, and third-party delivery—has proved to be the key to growth.

Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar

Lakewood, CO

33 units They’re bad and they know it, up 10 units since last year with plans to add 9 more in 2018 and 10 in 2019.

Duffy’s Sports Grill

Lake Worth, FL

34 units This Florida sports bar has become a regional leader in top-quality casual dining with an emphasis on fresh ingredients and more than 80 TVs broadcasting endless sports entertainment.

Cantina Laredo

Dallas, TX

37 units This modern Mexican spot has replicated its sophisticated atmosphere in 16 states, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.


Lubbock, TX

38 units The Abuelo’s story is simple—extraordinary flavor, impeccable service, and memorable experiences, all coupled with everyday value. The chain is fast approaching the 50 mark with two more units added each year for the next two years.

Seasons 52

Orlando, FL

41 units Darden’s chic green brand with a focus on seasonal and local is steadily growing.

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill

Charlotte, NC

45 units Soon to be a graduate of the FSR 50, this contemporary-polished chain offering an energetic twist on the traditional grill is firing up each community it lands in.


New York, NY

47 units Due to grow beyond 50 this year, Bareburger has been banking on its no-funny-business attitude and reaping the rewards. The chain proudly serves its communities with the goal to make the whole world smile.

The Rankings: Top 50 Emerging Restaurant Chains

FSR’s annual list of high-potential, performance-proven full-service brands with 50 locations or fewer and growing fast.

The FSR 50 is FSR’s annual list of high-potential, performance-proven full-service brands. Each has fewer than 50 locations and is growing fast. Here's our collection of some of the hottest full-service brands under 50 units.

[DOWNLOAD] 2017 and 2018 FSR 50 reports in PDF format

restaurant name total units units added 2018 planned units 2019 total company sales m average unit volume m average check
110 Grill 14 8 10 $30 $4.0 $25
Abuelo’s 38 2 2 $118 $3.2 $18
Arooga’s 17 5 8 $38 $2.5 $18
b Restaurants—burgers.beer.bourbon 9 0 2 $35 $3.5 $27
Babalu 9 1 3 $30 $3.2 $21
Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar 33 9 10 $75 $2.6 $18
Bareburger 47 3 10 $88 $2.3 $35
Bartaco 17 4 4e $95* $5.6* $22
Blue Sushi Sake Grill 13 1 3 $31 $3.3 $30e
Boston’s 24 3 5 $61 $2.3 $19
Bubba’s 33 21 1 7* $80* $4* $18*
Cantina Laredo 37 6 9 $90 $3.0 $23
Carolina Ale House 30 1 0 $56 $3.5 $25
Cody’s Original Roadhouse 16 0 5 $38 $3.3 $25e
Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant 31 4 5 $242 $8.3 $33e
Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House 13 4 2 $177 $14.1 $116
Duffy’s Sports Grill 34 1 3 $135 $4.1 $21
Eddie V’s 21 2 3* $102 $6.4 $90
Famous Toastery 32 10 15 $30 $1.5 $13
Firebirds Wood Fired Grill 45 4 6 $161 $3.8 $27
Founding Farmers 7 2 1 $60 $12.5 $57
J. Alexander’s 19 1 2* $108* $5.7* $31
JINYA Ramen Bar 23 12 25 $30 $1.3 $15
Lazy Dog 26 4 0 $150 $6.4 $20
Native Grill & Wings 33 3 8 $63 $1.6 $12
Ocean Prime 14 1 1 $109 $7.8 $110
Oggi’s Sports Brewhouse 16 0 3 $38 $2.4 $20
Pinstripes Bistro Bowling Bocce 10 2 3 $60 $8.5 $45
Piola 10 0 1 $15 $1.5 $20
Public School On Tap 8 0 1 $27 $3.0 $43
RARE Steakhouse 3 0 2 $20e $5.0 $130
Redlands Grill 12 2* 2* $68* $5.6* $30
Rock & Brews 22 5 6 $83 $4.8 $52
Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern 23 0 0 $60 $2.6 $24
Sauce Pizza and Wine 13 2 4 $25 $1.9 $11
Seasons 52 41 1 1* $250 $5.8 $45
Snooze 31 8 12 $60 $3.1 $14
STK 15 1 1* $165* $11* $115*
Stoney River Steakhouse 12 1 2* $46* $3.6* $43*
The Ainsworth 7 4 1 $30 $4.0 $30
The Flying Biscuit 16 5 8 $22 $1.5 $18e
The Lost Cajun 17 15 25 $10 $1.1 $40
The Matador 11 0 2 $30e $3.0 $29e
Thirsty Lion Gastropub & Grill 8 1 3 $35 $5.1 $24
Tupelo Honey Cafe 15 0 0 $52 $3.4 $22
Umami Burger 22 4 40 $37e $1.6e $15e
Walk-On’s 19 14 30 $70 $5.4 $16
Yolk 14 4 6 $28 $2.4 $25
Zea Rotisserie & Grill 9 1 1 $30 $5.5 $25
Zinburger Wine & Burger Bar 20 0 5 $60e $4e $20e

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Lazy Dog Inspires the Casual Dining 2.0 Movement

Lazy Dog looks to attract all generations by combining comfort with innovation.

Aiming to run the next generation of casual dining with scratch cooking and a brand that takes responsibility for not only its guests but also the products it serves and the people it employs, Chris Simms opened the first Lazy Dog in Huntington Beach, California, in 2003.

“Every time I come home, my dog is the most excited individual in the house,” Simms says of the name choice. “We wanted people to be able to feel that welcome when they walk in, and we wanted them to just be able to kick back and relax and let us take care of everything.”

READ MORE: Lazy Dog leads the pack of next-generation concepts.

His goal beyond that was to appeal to a wide audience, the next generation of consumers—millennials and Generation Z—as well as the baby boomers.

So far, he’s succeeded. Walking through one of Lazy Dog’s 26 locations primarily on the West Coast, one could encounter a table of 5-year-olds and their parents celebrating a birthday party, an elderly couple on a date, and a group of young people pregaming for a night out with drinks and appetizers at the bar.

“It’s this balance of comfort and approachable classics that I think attract the older generation, and I think the bold innovation and the liveliness of the concept really attract the younger generation,” Simms says. Some of that balance coexists within the same item on the menu, like with the guest-favorite BBQ Bison Meatloaf, for example. It’s a comfort food, but it uses an innovative protein.

Favorite menu item right now: BBQ Veggie Burger, lemon gluten sensitive cake, and Thai peanut wings. —Chris Simms, Lazy Dog

Other dishes that have proven popular are the Togarashi Edamame Beans small plate and the Burrata + Heirloom Tomato Crisp. Both were developed from trend-watching at other concepts that appeal to Lazy Dog’s customers and then doing the brand’s take on it. The edamame, instead of served just sprinkled with salt like at sushi restaurants, is tossed in a wok with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, orange peel, and the Japanese red chili spice mix togarashi. The burrata crisp is served almost like a pizza with chili oil and pomodoro sauce. “One of our goals has been to introduce people to new foods,” Simms says.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming—where Simms spent a lot of his childhood—is the inspiration behind the brand’s natural decor choice. And, when looking for new locations, the team gravitates toward places with a lot of energy and traffic.

Another key to the brand’s success as it has continued to appeal to more people in more markets is its people-focused culture, Simms says. “In all of our decision making, we’re always thinking about our teammates, guests, and vendors: all of the stakeholders in our business. And I find that that creates an environment where people really love coming to work. They then, in turn, bestow that upon the guests,” he says. As long as the Lazy Dog team can maintain guest experience at this caliber, it will continue to grow, Simms says. There will be 30 Lazy Dog restaurants by the end of the year, and the brand hopes to open at a 20 percent pace as it enters markets moving forward.

No Matter How Big it Gets, Bartaco Won't Stray from its Roots

On the edge of acquisition, bartaco sticks to its sense of self.

Coastal, upscale taco brand bartaco knows what sort of experience it is looking to create for its guests. “I think we can all agree that life looks a little different when you have your toes in the sand,” says Sabato Sagaria, president. “It’s being able to create something that evokes that for us regardless of what city you’re in.”

Since 2010, the brand has been transporting guests to that beach mentality whether they’re landlocked in Boulder, Colorado, or on the harbor in Port Chester, New York. It is 17 locations strong today, serving travel- and food truck–inspired dishes like Baja Fish tacos, Glazed Pork Belly tacos, and lettuce cup Tuna Tatako tacos alongside fresh-squeezed margaritas in a laid back atmosphere that feels like a friend’s beach house, Sagaria says. The sun comes in with ceiling fans going, while customers sit on the deck filling out the menu card with friends, coworkers, and family. “It becomes interactive,” he says of the cards. “Instead of having four people sitting at a table looking at a piece of paper in silence, the conversation starts immediately.”

As it’s grown, bartaco has aimed to design each location with the community it serves in mind. “Each one is unique in its own sense,” Sagaria says. Asheville, North Carolina, in the mountains is much different than Tampa, Florida. “We wanted to take inspiration from the surrounding communities, but do so through the lens of bartaco,” he says.

Favorite menu item right now: Roasted maitake mushroom tacos with sweet corn puree, asparagus and corn relish. —Sabato Sagaria, bartaco

And it seems there will be many more communities to consider in the future. Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group Inc.—owner of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, Del Frisco’s Grille, and Sullivan’s Steakhouse—announced its plans to acquire bartaco’s parent company Barteca—including Barcelona Wine Bar—in May. Although the unit count was only 16 at the time of the announcement—with 30 approved sites over both Barteca brands—Del Frisco’s estimates the total market potential for bartaco to be upward of 300 restaurants domestically.

It is anyone’s guess how the acquisition will affect the brand’s growth strategy. Del Frisco’s has not released the number of total bartaco units planned for 2019. Up until the acquisition, however, Barteca had opened a couple of locations each year, exploring the East Coast and the Midwest, with a larger growth spurt in 2015 due to private equity investments.

People are the brand’s top priority as the team looks to the future. “Ultimately it’s our team and the people that bring it to life, day in and day out,” Sagaria says. “That’s something that you can’t just churn out; that’s something that we build every day. We’re paying more and more attention to that as we move forward.”

The brand would like to use the talent they have to fuel growth. “I really applaud the founders for being thoughtful about growth,” Sagaria says. “That’s something that we can continue to keep at the forefront of our minds as we start to look at opportunities for continued development.”

Blue Sushi Rides the Slow-and-Steady Approach to Stardom

Blue has been pacing itself in the mid-America sushi race for 16 years now, and so far, so good.


Over 16 years Blue Sushi Sake Grill has gradually grown to 13 locations across the U.S. The brand is owned by Flagship Restaurant Group, which was founded by a group of investors including CEO Nick Hogan. Blue, the group’s first concept, began in Omaha, Nebraska. Hogan had spent time enjoying the sushi scene in Tucson, Arizona and San Diego, and then moved to Omaha and noticed a hole in the market. So, he and his partners—all in their late 20s and having never opened a restaurant before—opened the first Blue in 2002.

“We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Hogan says in hindsight. But, by learning and evolving the brand on the go, they have managed to develop a successful sushi brand, among others.

In the beginning, Hogan says, Blue was more of a specialty restaurant, but, as the brand has grown, Blue has changed to be more approachable. “Now, I think we operate in that space between maybe the mom-and-pop sushi restaurant and fine dining,” he says. “You get very close to the fine dining experience but with a more affordable ticket.”

One of the things that Hogan believes has been a significant component of Blue’s growth and brand revolution has been evolving the menu and decor of the locations continuously. “When we started 16 years ago, the vast majority of people were California-roll-eating people. As time has gone on, their palates have matured and they look for stuff that’s a little more out there. People are eating uni, or things that would have scared them away years ago. They’re eating more sashimi, climbing that sushi sophistication ladder,” Hogan says. “I think we’ve done a great job over the years of evolving our menu to keep pace with that.”

Favorite menu item right now: Poke, nigri, and the Spanish Fly roll. —Nick Hogan, Blue Sushi Sake Grill

On the menu, one can still find the ever-comforting Cali Roll, but also a light and refreshing sockeye salmon Poke bowl, a range of thoughtfully developed vegetarian and vegan sushi options like the Cowgirl roll with pickled vegan tempura, Sriracha-fried onion rings, and vegan mayo, and more exotic and sophisticated options like sashimi as well.

The look and feel of the locations, which are typically around 5,000 square feet, have gone through a similar evolution. In the early 2000s when the brand began, the decor included glowing acrylic and fish tanks. Now, the look involves more natural materials, traditional sake kegs, and Japanese beer ads.

The future for the brand includes more evolution, Hogan foresees, and steady growth in urban entertainment and midtown development settings. “Our growth has been very organic, fueled by cash flow and some community bank financing,” Hogan says.

The team has discussed private equity, but Hogan believes what has worked for the brand has been its easeful pace. “If you’re gearing up and taking a bunch of private money to grow faster, then maybe you don’t have quite as much time [to evolve the menu and decor as thoughtfully],” he says. With the plan of opening three to four stores a year for the next couple of years, Hogan says the brand’s intention is to grow indefinitely.

Top 100 Independent Restaurants for 2018

A collection of 100 independently owned and operated restaurants from around the country demonstrates what’s trendy and what works in 2018 and beyond. And it all starts with pastry.

Pastry has captured the hearts of Americans coast to coast, from the cronut in Brooklyn to those cereal- and matcha-dusted churros of Los Angeles. For further proof, look no further than the stories told in the latest installment of the Netflix original series “Chef’s Table” or the continued popularity stateside of “The Great British Baking Show.” If we ask ourselves how this happened, the answer comes in the form of another question: What’s more American than apple pie?

These days, though, pastry is about influences near and far. For Caitlin Dysart, the pastry chef at Centrolina in Washington, D.C., inspiration comes from her classical French training, her mother’s baking, and any and everywhere else.

[RELATED] Download the 2017 and 2018 FSR 50 reports in PDF format

For Dysart, pastry is all about technique, innovation, and joy, which she brings to the menu and hearts of diners at the James Beard–nominated restaurant in D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood. The technicolored performance desserts of Instagram may seem de rigueur these days, but it’s one of Dysart’s simplest recipes that has won favor at Centrolina: The olive oil cake.

“It’s very humble looking,” she says. “It’s a really simple, one-layer cake dusted with powdered sugar. It’s a really nice mix of rich from the olive oil, but not too heavy. It’s the perfect afternoon tea snack. I was surprised; we blow through it.”

It’s not all about looks when it comes to desserts, unlike what social media may tell us these days. In fact, to the contrary, Dysart says—focusing only on a pastry’s aesthetic can be a detriment to the final product.

“There’s no denying that social media is a big factor, especially because pastry is so aesthetic, but it shouldn’t be all aesthetic and that is definitely a trap people fall into,” she says. “But pastry also just tends to be a really fun and colorful presentation, and hits on nostalgia.”

Nostalgia comes through in Dysart’s other most popular confection at Centrolina, the salted oat Nutella bar. Yes, there must be Nutella. Dysart developed the treat based on one of her mother’s concoctions, which turns out to be the source of Dysart’s pastry roots. The chef wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after graduating from Tulane in 2005. Living in New Orleans post-Katrina meant few businesses were open. Dysart landed at a pastry shop, Sucré. She started as a barista but quickly made her way into the kitchen, taking after her mother, who owned a pastry business that sold at farmers markets in Northern Virginia, where Dysart is from.

“I didn’t know I wanted to be a pastry chef,” she says. “I just felt a natural connection or understanding of the ingredients. And it’s joyful. You’re bringing people joy—people get really excited when they try what you make.”

In 2009, Dysart headed to the French Pastry School in Chicago. After graduating, she returned to the D.C. area and started working at 2941 in Falls Church, Virginia, where she was promoted to pastry chef in 2012. She came to Centrolina in February 2017.

“[Centrolina] aligns with my style because it’s Italian and I have more of a European training, but it’s also different than what I’ve done before, and I was really attracted to that opportunity to explore a new area of pastry,” Dysart says. “My first job was a retail pastry concept and now I get to do restaurant and retail plated desserts, but also bakery items. And there are different challenges between the two.”

Like Dysart’s first job at the pastry shop in New Orleans, Centrolina also has a market where snacks, sandwiches, and pastries are available all day. She says for this reason, pastry is an even more important element to the menu.

“Restaurants will utilize the pastry program in different ways—bread, bon bon, petit four. I just think it adds a selling point for guests and they know you are committed to the meal from start to finish,” she says. “All-day dining is a big trend, and pastry really plays into that going from breakfast to midmorning and midafternoon snacks. It’s not just dessert; it really carries throughout the entire day at an all-day concept.”

Having specialized only in pastry, one may wonder if it’s possible to get bored with sweet treats. But Dsyart says no, there’s always something new to learn.

“You’re constantly taking your playbook, your repertoire of what you know how to do, and trying to mix and match with new flavors and new ideas,” she says. “Everyone has nostalgic connections with pastries and desserts. And people want to share that with you so you’re constantly learning and getting inspiration.”

What’s her perfect pastry? The cream puff. It’s hard to argue with that.

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5 Ways to Grow Your Culinary Skills Online

No tasting? No problem. Virtual learning is here for the culinary industry.

No tasting? No problem. Virtual learning is here for the culinary industry, even without smell-o-vision (or whatever the taste equivalent would be.) In the restaurant industry especially, busy professionals don’t have time for classes on campus during the afternoon. Learning online allows them to take it at their own pace. Here are some favorites among professionals, whether they’re seeking certifications or just to brush up on some skills with a leader they admire.

Le Cordon Bleu
When it comes to online culinary degrees, Le Cordon Bleu is the real deal. The school offers Associate’s Degrees in culinary operations, and hospitality and restaurant management, as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in culinary management—all fully online. Offerings span front-of-house to back. The program allows access from anywhere, anytime, and is ideal for those already in the industry who are working full- or part-time. Lessons are taught through presentations, discussion forums, chat sessions, assignments, and group projects.

Escoffier Online
Escoffier’s online international culinary academy is a top contender for certifications. Students can enroll in a culinary arts program, receive a pastry arts diploma, and brush up on the fundamentals in each area. The Culinary Arts Program lasts 13 months online and is touted as a fit for working professionals. Interactive courses are delivered by professional chef instructors. Students can participate in live classroom discussions as well as learn the business-side of the industry. The Pastry Arts Program has six virtual learning modules for each assignment: research, discuss, plan, experience, reflect, and feedback.

Rouxbe bills itself as the world’s best online culinary school, and industry pros agree with the hype. What’s Rouxbe’s hook? Brick and mortar culinary schools are closing their doors around the world, which we’ve seen to be true. Several culinary schools have closed their doors since FSR updated its directory of schools. Rouxbe delivers professional culinary education entirely through high-definition videos with peer support and interactive assignments. Programs are available for individual training, industry group training, and targeted training for health and wellness professionals. Certification is available for professional cooks and plant-based professionals.

Master Class
What’s second-best to learning from episodes of Hell’s Kitchen? Gordon Ramsay’s own kitchen in high-definition. No time to visit Alice Waters and Thomas Keller in California? Catch them online—Wolfgang Puck, too. Master Class provides video lessons, a class workbook, and “office hours.” Students can upload videos to get feedback from classmates and the star chef they’re working with. Like Rouxbe, Master Class is available through any browser. Master Class also provides special content for iPhone and iPad users.

International Association of Culinary Professionals
As restaurateurs know today, it can take many lines of business to stay in business. While the International Association of Culinary Professionals won’t teach you how to cook, it will give you new skills to combine with cooking. Need help creating content for your Instagram? There’s a webinar for that. Thinking about releasing a cookbook? There’s a webinar for that, too. The IACP also provides fellowship through events and social networking that allows industry pros to learn from each other.

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