Special Reports

FSR 50: America’s Top 50 Emerging Restaurant Chains

This 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.

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill

This North Carolina–based wood-fired concept has not only opened locations across the South and Midwest, it is also poised to grow even faster after being purchased by venture capital firm J.H. Whitney Capital Partners in December.


Rated the No. 1 Mexican/Tex-Mex restaurant by Consumer Reports since 2006, Abuelo’s continues its steady, sustainable expansion. In May, the chain added antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed chicken to its menu.

Cantina Laredo

The Texas-based chain has been slinging out modern Mexican eats and margaritas—of which there are a dozen varieties—for 35 years across the U.S. and now as far afield as the U.K. and U.A.E.

True Food Kitchen

True Food Kitchen

For Shannon Keller, digital is the future of marketing. True Food Kitchen’s chief marketing officer, who took on the role in March as the first CMO in company history, has her sights set on capturing a changing audience and connecting with them beyond the four walls of the restaurant.

Uncle Julio’s

This upscale Mexican restaurant already had a solid formula before L Catterton scooped it up in late 2017. Now it’s even stronger; Uncle Julio’s closed 2018 with sales up 14 percent.

Umami Burger

Umami Burger credits a lot of its success to the partnerships it makes.

“We have a special Artist Series program, which brings partners from a wide range of fields together to create incredible dishes that support a charitable cause,” says Sam Nazarian, CEO and chairman of sbe Entertainment, which owns the brand. Among the people the concept has partnered with so far are Daniel Boulud, Alton Brown, Jon Bon Jovi, and Cindy Crawford.

“We truly believe each brand we partner with creates a unique experience for our guests. We’re looking for the best global companies that are at the forefront of their respective industries,” Nazarian says. “At Umami Burger, we are less focused on trends and more focused on creating groundbreaking moments and memories for our customers.”

It seems to be working, because Umami Burger is growing. Founded in 2009, the chain now has 26 locations globally, with U.S. locations in California, New York, Illinois, and Nevada, and international restaurants in the Bahamas, Japan, and Mexico.

The company recently announced that it will open more than 100 Umami Burger restaurants across the globe over the next seven years in partnership with AccorHotels, which acquired a 50 percent stake in sbe Entertainment last year. —Amanda Baltazar

Native Grill & Wings

Native Grill & Wings continues to capitalize on Americans’ infatuation with wings. Earlier this year it landed on Entrepreneur‘s Franchise 500 list.

The Broken Yolk Café

It’s been a decade since an episode of “Man vs. Food” catapulted a local legend into a franchise frenzy. The San Diego independent now spans 34 locations across six states.


Founded in 2006 by brothers Jon and Adam Schlegel, Snooze, an A.M. Eatery, has grown to 31 units in four states with a brand built on three pillars: community, sustainability, and responsible sourcing for a decidedly chef-driven menu.

The Lost Cajun

The Lost Cajun

Raymond “Griff” Griffin never planned to own any restaurants, but he opened The Lost Cajun almost on a whim in November 2010. Now he anticipates 100 units in operation within four years.

The Lost Cajun started in Frisco, Colorado, as an 800-square-foot restaurant serving just four menu items: seafood gumbo, fried catfish, chicken and sausage gumbo, and beignets, all from original recipes. “We’re not trying to be Cajun,” says Griffin, who is from Louisiana. “We are Cajun.”

Two years after Lost Cajun made its debut, Griffin opened a second in Breckenridge, Colorado, then started franchising in 2014. There are now 23 restaurants among Colorado and six Southern states, with seven more under construction and expected to open this year, then six more in 2020. Griffin could easily open twice as many stores but prefers to keep growth at a steady pace and build support systems.

Griffin is learning as he goes. “I’ve never been in the restaurant business, so I have to do this slowly and educate myself about the franchise business.” He says he’s learned the rules of the industry through mentors, trade shows, and a constant curiosity. —AB

Elmer’s Breakfast - Lunch - Dinner

Elmer’s balances an old-school diner atmosphere with fare that is a step above the pancake-meatloaf-pie paradigm thanks to options like Lingonberry Crepes and Rock Salt Roasted Prime Rib.

Lazy Dog

Rocky Mountain sensibility meets upscale casual at this 30-unit concept that specializes in New American fare (think: Pork Belly BLT and Heirloom Bean Salad) and even boasts its own beer of the month club.

Boston’s Pizza Restaurant

The Canadian-born restaurant and sports bar has ballooned to 400 locations across North America, but with only 23 of them in the U.S., Boston’s still has plenty of runway ahead.

Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar

Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux

Scott Taylor, president and chief operating officer of Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar, doesn’t invest in restaurants as much as he invests in people, because that’s what he feels is behind the success of his 28-location chain.

“We’ve built an incredible culture within our teams, from our corporate office to each location,” Taylor says. “When people become franchisees, they are part of our family, and we have successes and failures together.” He also feels strongly about having regional franchise coaches, who oversee 10 stores at the most so they can visit every store, as well as dedicated regional marketing managers and culinary managers.

The second key to success of this Baton Rouge, Louisiana–based chain is that as the team began working on the franchise program, they systematized everything they did, from hiring staff and operating shifts to preparing the menu and working with the local community. “We’ve even systematized the basics, like how we clean things and put them away. This makes it easier for franchisees to expand,” Taylor says.

And it’s working. The concept, which opened in 2007, will launch another 14 units this year to close 2019 with 42, and Taylor anticipates adding another 20 next year. Three of next year’s stores will be corporate stores, “because the franchisees like to see the franchisor have some skin in the game,” he says. “And we believe in our brand, too.” —AB

Rock & Brews

Classic rock inspired—and continues to inform—this 22-unit chain, which puts its own spin on traditional pub staples while doubling down on local, craft beer.

Bubba’s 33

Following in the footsteps of big sister Texas Roadhouse, Bubba’s 33 has planted flags far and wide with the intention of filling in the white space—possibly as soon as 2021.

Eddie V’s

The classic seafood-steak combination is alive and well at this Orlando-based chain. While its pipeline numbers fewer than a dozen units, Eddie V’s enjoys the pooled resources of parent company, Darden, for future growth.

Lupe Tortilla

Lupe Tortilla

Growth has been slow and steady for 36-year-old Lupe Tortilla, but it’s finally ready to tackle new markets beyond the Lone Star State.

J. Alexander’s

The flagship—and eponymous restaurant—of J. Alexander’s Holdings group continued its trend of single-unit spring openings with a Pennsylvania addition in 2018 and a Houston one in March.

Kura Revolving Sushi Bar

This Japanese brand numbers nearly 400 units in its home turf but is still an up-and-comer in the U.S. The conveyor belt of rotating, seasonal sushi, as well as Kura’s mascot, Muten-Maru, makes for an interactive guest experience.

Eggs Up Grill

Eggs Up Grill

The Southern breakfast chain is turning up the heat on expansion.

Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant

Barcelona may yet establish itself as the top Spanish tapas chain in the U.S. following its and sister restaurant Bartaco’s acquisition by L Catterton in June.

Keke’s Breakfast Cafe

Keke’s Breakfast Cafe cofounder Kevin Mahen thinks he and brother and cofounder Keith have found the secret to full-service restaurant success: fresh-made food served quickly in a daytime setting.


Not only do the brews reflect the local craft scene at HopCat locations, the physical spaces vary widely. As an example, the Kansas City store sports a four-season rooftop cabana.


The sports bar boasts a menu with no-antibiotic wagyu burgers, scratch-made appetizers, and the five-time Buffalo Wing Festival award-winning wings.


To be sure, the taco category is a crowded one, but Bartaco’s upscale—but not too pricey—take on the humble carrier lends it an inherent, competitive edge.

Famous Toastery

Famous Toastery

The key to Famous Toastery’s success, says CEO Robert Maynard, is not competing with others. And that’s trickier now than when he opened the first restaurant in 2005—a time when there were far fewer full-service breakfast concepts.

“We set out on our own plan; we are on our own growth trajectory and doing what we do best at the pace we feel is best for our business,” he says. “You’ve got to have your goals and stick to them. If you don’t, you’ll follow every trend and do what everyone else is doing.”

And as it has since the beginning, the chain only offers from-scratch, high-quality food, while Maynard believes many competitors are taking the “cheap route.”

Famous Toastery has just over 40 units in six states and expects to open another 15–20 stores before the end of 2020. The time is right to increase franchising, Maynard says, because he finally has the right team in place, including executives, field staff in the trenches, managers, and general managers.

The biggest challenge Maynard faces, he says, is ensuring franchisees operate their units correctly. “People spend a lot of money to join a franchise, and with a franchise you get what works,” he says. “When people start deviating is when things go wrong.” —AB

Burtons Grill & Bar

Customization is key for Burtons, which is perennially named among the most allergy-friendly chains in the country. Only halfway into 2019, it already has three new locations either open or in the works.

P.J. Whelihan’s

P.J. Whelihan’s

After P.J. Whelihan’s Pub + Restaurant opened its first location in 1983, it took 10 years to open the second. But the concept has continued to grow since then and today has 17 company-owned stores, five partnerships with arenas, and one wing truck, with two more locations anticipated later this year.

“Growth has steadily accelerated, and [we’ve] been able to remain nimble enough to react to economic opportunities and challenges. We’re proud that we’ve never had to close a location,” says CEO Jim Fris.

One key to P.J. Whelihan’s success is that its operating company, PJW. Restaurant Group, opens restaurants in communities that are on the rise, Fris says, “ones that have 20-plus years of growth ahead of them.” Then, he says, each restaurant gets “genuinely involved in what makes them thrive. Whether it’s the local church, the local team, the surrounding businesses we support—it pays off, and they in turn support us, too. People get to know us, we get to know them—and build loyalty and affinity.”

But P.J. Whelihan’s isn’t complacent. “We always ask ourselves, ‘How do we deliver wins at the store level?’” Fris says. “We challenge ourselves to be better every day. Operational processes and technology are a big part of that. We’re working to streamline efforts for both front and back of the house.” —AB

Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille

A veritable institution in Houston, Perry’s marked 40 years in business this June. Texas still accounts for the bulk of its system, but forthcoming locations in Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina will soon expand its reach.

The Flying Biscuit

The Flying Biscuit is soaring high with five new stores in 2018 and six more completed by summer’s end. It’s well on the way to its goal of 30 units by 2020.

Bad Daddy’s

Bad Daddy’s

There’s a fine line between being a fun and irreverent restaurant and being too much, but Bad Daddy’s stays on the right side of it. “It’s more about having a high-energy restaurant, and we like our employees to be very informal,” says Boyd Hoback, president and CEO of Good Times Restaurants, parent company of Bad Daddy’s.

The concept, he says, offers personal, welcoming, engaging service and is a “non-chain chain.” The irreverence comes through in the décor, which Hoback describes as garage grunge from the 1970s and ’80s. For example, the men’s restroom features posters of Farrah Fawcett, while the ladies’ shows Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.

And while Bad Daddy’s takes its food seriously, featuring regional ingredients prepared in a scratch kitchen, it also offers a Bad Ass Burger and a Bad Ass Margarita. “We encourage customers to let their ‘badassness’ fly,” Hoback says. The concept, he adds, is upscale casual, with an average per-person check of $18.

Casual dining, he says, “is being commoditized around value and lacks a passion for food and hospitality.” But Bad Daddy’s is different. “We’re not trying to give guests the cheapest food; we pay a lot of attention to quality ingredients and try to have some recipes and taste profiles that are way out there,” Hoback says. “We bring cool to the suburbs.” —AB

Panini Kabob Grill

This California chain puts a West Coast spin on Mediterranean favorites. Panini Kabob will soon expand beyond the Golden State as deals in Las Vegas and Scottsdale, Arizona, come to fruition.

Punch Bowl Social

The Denver-based chain infuses the standard restaurant formula with a jolt of fun—in the form of karaoke, foosball, bowling, and the like. To wit, Fast Company recently named it as one of the 50 Most Innovative Companies in the world.

STK Steakhouse

Over the past year this urbane concept has posted impressive domestic same-store sales growth each quarter, the most recent hitting 8.6 percent.

JINYA Ramen Bar

JINYA Ramen Bar

For JINYA Ramen Bar, the keys to successful growth are involving franchisees as much as possible and diversifying the restaurant profile.

Ocean Prime

Cameron Mitchell’s renowned Ocean Prime combines upscale settings with a vibrant energy, an impressive menu of seafood and steaks, and exceptional hospitality. The company opened its first location in Chicago earlier this year.


This culinarily minded restaurant has a test kitchen menu with dishes like Korean Hot Chicken and Waffles that punch well above their weight.

Blue Sushi Sake Grill

The Nebraska-based concept presents a diverse selection of maki, sashimi, and nigiri, along with atataki (warm) and tsumetai (cool) dishes. And don’t miss the brand’s specialty: vegan maki.

110 Grill


110 Grill is the place to go for those with food allergies, and in March, AllergyEats ranked it No. 4 on its list of the five most allergy-friendly small chains with fewer than 50 locations.

Hosts at the restaurants ask guests as they enter if they would like an allergy menu, and most items are the same, just modified, says Ryan Dion, COO. In the back of the house, there’s a binder listing all possible allergens in each dish. “This is a growing part of our business; more than 20 percent of our sales are with allergy meals,” Dion says. “If you can do it the right way and do it safely, it’s a great way to grow.”

Dion and his business partner, developer Robert Walker, launched the 110 Grill restaurant group in 2014 and opened the first restaurant that year. In the five years since then, the chain has grown to 22 locations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York. It’s opened four this year, with four more to come, and possibly 10 next year. The stores are all company-owned, “and it’s our goal, long-term, to be national,” Dion says. “It’s challenging to visit all the stores, but that’s why I have layers of people in place.” —AB

Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House

This Texas-based micro-chain boasts the highest average-unit volumes ($14 million) and the second highest company-wide sales, bested only by Uncle Julio’s, whose revenue stream is bolstered by more than twice the unit count.


Real comfort food is the name of the game at Aubrey’s, which intermingles Southern staples with more refined, new American bites across East Tennessee.

Redlands Grill

It’s been four years since J. Alexander’s rebranded several locations as Redlands Grill. Like its progenitor, Redlands Grill specializes in contemporary American eats with check averages around $30.



Pinstripes isn’t just about dining out; it’s about connections, says founder and CEO Dale Schwartz. And he’s not talking about the type you make digitally.

In each location, the chain features a bistro, bowling lanes, bocce courts, and event spaces, and the concept “was inspired by an appreciation for authentic connections with others,” he says. “People come for different reasons. We’re a restaurant with bowling and bocce, not the other way around.”

The concept started 12 years ago in Chicago and has grown to 10 locations in seven states. This year it’s opening three more and another three or four in 2020, with the goal of opening internationally before too long. All locations are company-owned, though for foreign units, Schwartz would have a partner in that country for local market intel.

“When you franchise, it makes it a little harder to have that special esprit de corps and cohesive team culture,” he says.

What’s important to Schwartz is that Pinstripes doesn’t feel like a chain. “Each location is slightly different, but all stay true to our concept and brand,” he says. “New locations may have all the bells and whistles, but all the locations are cut from the same cloth.” —AB

Stoney River Steakhouse

The third multiunit concept within J. Alexander’s Holdings is a step up from the other two, leaning more into high-ticket steakhouse fare.

Karl Strauss Brewing Company

As one of the earliest adopters of the craft beer movement, the California-exclusive brewery/restaurant celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. And while many craft breweries have since cropped up, the founders of Karl Strauss are confident their brand has staying power—and growth potential.

Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant

Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant

Iron Hill was founded in 1996 and began with just one location in Newark, Delaware. Since then, the company has been winning awards for its beers and is, it claims, the most award-winning brewery east of the Mississippi.

The company’s beer and food have always stood on their own, but work well together, and the menus offer specific pairings. They’re also paired irrevocably, in that chefs cook with the beer.

Each Iron Hill location is heavily connected to the local community and donates money to both CureSearch for Children’s Cancer and to a local cause chosen by each individual restaurant. “While the commitment is financial, our connection to supporting and participating in the local community goes much deeper,” says CEO Kim Boerema. “We realize that the idea of community starts with how we treat our employees and goes well beyond our four walls.”

Over its 23 years, Iron Hill has expanded to 17 locations in four states: Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and South Carolina. “We are looking at vibrant and growing communities in the Southeastern U.S.,” Boerema says. —AB

Slater’s 50/50

Half ground beef, half ground bacon burgers are a key component to Slater’s success. Just shy of a dozen units, the SoCal-based brand opened three units last year and has already expanded as far afield as Dallas and Honolulu.

Boombozz Craft Pizza & Taphouse

A cluster approach to expansion has served Boombozz Craft Pizza & Taphouse well. The restaurant started in Louisville and has since moved into adjacent cities around Indianapolis and Nashville, Tennessee.



Since Bareburger opened in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York, in 2009, its goals have remained the same: to serve clean, sustainable, organic (whenever possible), and locally sourced foods. And despite growing to 40 locations in seven states and three other countries, the company has stuck to its guns.

It’s also evolved and now serves exotic proteins (wild boar, ostrich, duck, and elk). It also eliminated some proteins to create a menu that’s 50 percent vegan, with some products from Beyond Meat, Impossible, and JUST. “We’ve always taken great pride in serving great food,” says CEO Euripides Pelekanos. “Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, kosher, or just plain hungry, we are eager to serve you.”

Bareburger has also stayed humble in its expansion efforts. “One of our biggest strengths is how resilient we are,” Pelekanos says. “Being able to bounce back and realizing what worked and what did not is important.”

The concept plans to open 13 more locations by the end of the year. “We’re taking a regional approach,” he says. “We look for great operators to partner with.” —AB

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These Restaurant Groups are Supercharging Independent Concepts

In today’s market, restaurant groups might be the best way to rock the independent restaurant.

When Luke Dirks and Joshua McFadden created Submarine Hospitality in Portland, Oregon, in 2016, there wasn’t an existing group of restaurants they were building an umbrella brand for. Instead, the group came first.

McFadden already had one restaurant—Ava Gene’s. He and Dirks knew they wanted to create another, Tusk. They built Submarine Hospitality first, bought Ava Gene’s from McFadden’s former partner, and then opened Tusk, all between February and August of 2016. Now the group operates five concepts total and is planning something scalable in the future.

“I think everyone in our industry is kind of seeing that scalable concepts are important in a portfolio to stay financially solvent,” Dirks says. “It’s harder to make one-off, service-oriented restaurants pencil out financially.”

But with the power of Submarine Hospitality behind Ava Gene’s and Tusk, Dirks and McFadden had faith. Dirks started Submarine after serving as partner in Happy Cooking restaurant group in New York City. The experience informed what Submarine has become.

“One of the things that’s important if you’re going to do a multi-concept, multi-individual space restaurant group—it’s really important to not have it feel like a chain,” Dirks says. “Otherwise they’re all basically the same, [so] why are they named different names?”

A Strong Core

For Submarine’s restaurants, there are three core values that each must embody, and when combined they give a feel that Dirks says creates a common thread. The first is sourcing and relationships with farmers, a founding tenet that began with Ava Gene’s when it was created in 2012. The slogan at Ava Gene’s is “locally sourced, aggressively seasonal.”

“Ava Gene’s is a little more expensive than other restaurants in Portland, but for us, there’s a great degree of value to be had there,” Dirks says. “Whether we’re doing a fast-casual concept or a super-expensive, fine-dining restaurant, we want it to be packed with a lot of value.”

The second core value is interior design, which Dirks says is more important in a restaurant group than folks might realize. Each restaurant needs to be different, and each experience needs to be unique.

“We believe restaurants are supposed to feel transportive,” he says. “It’s important you think you went somewhere and not just substituted eating out for eating at home. It’s aesthetic design and vibe. For us that’s about furniture and visuals, but also music curation, the way the lighting works, the way the sound quality is. We’re really trying to direct physical spaces as much as anything else.”

Third and perhaps most important if least unique is hospitality. Guests in Submarine restaurants should feel welcome, educated but not talked down to, and just have a great time.

“We try to hit the point of education and excellence,” Dirks says.

Lessons Learned

At Tusk, the first restaurant Submarine conceived and executed, the sweet spot was reached. Guests latched on to the concept immediately, Dirks says, and the press was far ahead. The buzz for Tusk was formidable, and awards shortly followed. But Dirks says all that buzz was a big lesson for the duo in building out a new concept. He says if he could do it again he’d have less buzz in the press and more financing in his pocket before making any promises about opening dates.

“We got a strong early buzz going, which was really exciting and fun and not to be taken for granted, but when we experienced a few months of construction delays, I think there was even a little bit of a feeling of negativity starting to creep up,” Dirks says. “Wait until you actually know when you’re going to open until you push the PR side of things. Raise a lot more money than you think you need to raise and give yourself the time you need to get it done.”


At Tusk, guests latched on to the concept immediately.

But since then, Submarine has had an additional partner in its new concepts. The Hoxton, a boutique hotel group, approached Dirks and McFadden when opening its second U.S. hotel and requested three concepts. Submarine operates the hotel restaurant, La Neta, a rooftop bar, Tope, and an alley cocktail bar known only by its location, 2 NW 5th.

Each concept has been a lesson and an opportunity and, looking to the future, Dirks and McFadden see more growth coming in spades thanks in most part to their leverage as a group.

Power In Numbers

“There’s safety in numbers, there’s some economies of scale when you have one office that’s managing the finance for two restaurants, and then you add a third—you’re not actually tripling the work, you’re using a lot of the same vendors and a lot of the same processes,” Dirks says.

This builds a powerful platform. In creating the menus within their Hoxton concepts, Submarine tapped Johnny Leach, a chef native to Portland who had spent time in New York City working under the famed Korean-American chef David Chang. Dirks says that Submarine provides the ability to elevate chefs whose work might not otherwise survive the way the market treats independent restaurants.

“Your average industry professional who is working at a restaurant, whether they’re a really talented bartender or a really talented server or sommelier, they don’t have access to the infrastructure that they would need to open a restaurant,” Dirks says. “Obviously the path forward there would be to just bootstrap it and slowly build your own concept and slowly raise money and figure out how to do the finances and HR and payroll. But I think a lot of restaurants fail because there’s no clear correlation between being a great restaurant industry professional and being a great backend business person.”

Folks in other restaurant groups put this theory into practice, too. At Sage Restaurant Group in Denver that power means efficiencies in the home office, purchasing power, and a seamless strategy throughout the system.

Serving the Guest

“We’re what I like to call a ragtag group of really competent professionals,” says Brent Berkowitz, chief operating officer at Sage. The group consists of six concepts, a few of which have started to scale. Urban Farmer, for example, has locations in Cleveland, Denver, Philadelphia, and Portland. But each location still makes a commitment to the local community, which guests demand, Berkowitz says.

“If you’re in an Urban Farmer, you know you’re in an Urban Farmer,” Berkowitz says of the brand’s continuity. “There is a bloodline that runs throughout all of them. We make it a very specific priority to be a part of the community.”

That includes locally sourced food and wine on the menu. Cleveland guests want perogis. Denver guests want chili. While there are four Urban Farmer locations, only about 40 percent of the menu is replicated.

Similarly, employees at Urban Farmer feel like they are part of Urban Farmer, not Sage Restaurant Group. The individuality of the restaurants remain, but the restaurant group is the background for support.

“If you work at Departure Portland, you work for Departure Portland, you don’t work for Sage Restaurant Group,” Berkowitz says. “We’re able to use what’s good out of both sides—as far as being a group, we have purchasing power. There are efficiencies at the home office—finance, marketing, HR. That’s where the group part really comes in and the ability to mesh everything together, but not for our guests, for our internal guests, which is our staff.”

Staying With Hotels

Sage serves one additional type of guest—the hotel guest. Like Submarine, Sage has a hotel restaurant management arm, which Berkowitz says gives the group even more leveraging power.

“Because of our hotel purchasing, we have purchasing power through a vendor program and access to pricing at a much larger scale while still staying small,” he says. “From a business-to-business perspective, we’re a big company and there’s safety and confidence and trust that goes along with being a big company for 30 years. From a business-to-business perspective, there is this idea that we just really have strong ethos about operations and how we treat our guests and our teams.”

Having made big moves in hotel restaurant management and scalable concepts, Berkowitz says Sage is looking toward true indies as a big area for growth. The hotel partnerships has allowed Sage to take creative leaps, Berkowitz says. Now he’s imagining what those creative leaps can look like without the time that is tied up with in-room dining and other ancillary duties that come along with hotel hospitality.

“We’re very successful and bottom-lined focused so we’re ready to maybe try something on our own,” he says. “We think it would help our rate of growth.”

The Jump into Diversification

For some restaurateurs, though, one independent concept in this market doesn’t seem like a safe bet, or even an interesting one. While scalable fast-casual units seem to have been all the rage in recent years, Kyle Noonan has thus far only been interested in scalable full-service concepts.

Cheryl Juetten

The slogan at Ava Gene’s is “locally sourced, aggressively seasonal.”

He launched FreeRange Concepts with his business partner Josh Sepkowitz in 2012. The duo of college besties put three out of four of their concepts on the market at the same time. It was a bold decision, but one that paid off.

“Frankly it was probably just sheer stupidity, or maybe just naivete, that you think you can just open a bunch of stuff and you don’t realize how hard it actually is to do,” Noonan says in hindsight. “But we knew once we were committed, we could make it happen.”

The duo launched their first three concepts in 11 months—and they weren’t just restaurants. FreeRange is an experiential brand. Each business included some sort of large venue—a bowling alley, a concert stage, or a dog park.

“I’m not going to say I would do it again,” Noonan says. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it in the way we did.”

Still, there are some things Noonan and Sepkowitz did that he would recommend, especially to those looking to grow in the market today. One of the biggest advantages to launching such a multifaceted set of concepts was the diversity. FreeRange’s main concepts are different enough that there’s something for everyone—which means some locations are always busy.

“The concepts kind of ultimately complement each other,” Noonan says. “When the weather is perfect and it’s 75 and sunny, Bowl & Barrel isn’t very busy; people don’t want to be inside. But Rustic or Mutts, which are great outdoor venues, they’re screaming busy during that time. Then the inverse is true when it’s raining. So from a complementary cashflow standpoint, that’s one of the benefits we have with multiple concepts.”

The FreeRange array has also helped Noonan understand the consumer better. The experiential concepts allow him to observe consumer traffic patterns and desire to give the team a better lens on where to go next. And it seems wherever these groups go, they’ll do so with the same powerful moves.

“We’re looking to have a diverse portfolio, from super-basic, fun fast casual, hotel management contracts, and then our own brand pillar restaurants like Ava Gene’s and Tusk,” says Dirks of Submarine. “And we’re trying to be more vertically integrated as a company.”

The Brand Leading the Next Generation of Casual Dining

Chris Simms created Lazy Dog by putting his passions to work, with personal touches like putting his favorite foods on the menu.

Chris Simms fell in love with the restaurant industry as an adolescent. But his father, Tom, one of the original owners of Mimi’s Cafe, didn’t push him in that direction. In fact, there was no pressure to go into the family business at all, Simms says.

When he turned 14, his father told him it was time to get a job. “He said … ‘You need to get a job this summer and I don’t care what you do—you can do anything you want, I just want you to be productive.’ That was the best thing he could have ever done because there was no pressure to be in the restaurant business.”

Chris Flynn

The 14-year-old Simms opted to work at a golf course, but he unsurprisingly ended up at the snack stand, where he says he fell in love with feeding people. “I was like, oh, my god, I get to make people happy by feeding them. And so, I would have to say that was the summer I realized I like this.”

Simms ended up in college for hospitality at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. At Cornell, the San Fernando Valley native learned he wasn’t fond of New York winters, but still considered staying and went to investigate the life of his friends who were working on Wall Street.

“I spent a weekend with them and never saw them because they were sleeping at their desks—it sealed the deal; I wasn’t going to be in finance,” he says. “I needed to work with teams and feed people and create a celebratory environment for guests.”

So, after college, Simms came home to sunny Southern California, returning with ambitions to build his own restaurant family.

The Family You Love

At Lazy Dog—which Simms founded in 2003 with his father after a few years at P.F. Chang’s and a few years at the family’s restaurant, Mimi’s—the family you love is a guiding principle. For those working under The Lazy Dog Way, it means to simply treat others with trust and respect and to put the team and guest’s needs before your own.

The first person that Simms and his father brought into the Lazy Dog family was the company’s executive chef, Gabe Caliendo. Caliendo came to Lazy Dog from The Ritz-Carlton because Simms wanted someone who truly knew quality and had a vast knowledge of cuisine. The Lazy Dog menu started with all of Simms’ favorite foods, plus some “approachable innovation.” That innovation is part of what keeps Lazy Dog fresh—and growing—more than a decade later. Simms builds this part of the menu through his own experiences dining out, what he calls the R&D.

Chris Flynn

Chef Gabe Caliendo was one of the first hires Simms made in the Lazy Dog family. Caliendo brings a fine dining touch to the family-friendly restaurant.

Passionate About Food

“We like going to those little, edgy places that most of the population never gets to,” he says of hip restaurants in the Silver Lake neighborhood of LA. “We find those great little ideas and we bring those back and craft our version with our guest in mind. That innovation is really big to the younger part of our clientele.”

He harkens back to a recent R&D trip to San Francisco where he experienced an American dim sum—American food rolled out in dim sum style, on carts throughout the meal.

“We came back and we started working on various options for our happy hour menu—some toasts, some little pancakes with really cool ingredients, neat finger food—so, we’re kind of pulling that inspiration into our happy hour menu.”

These out-of-the-box ideas that are folded into the Lazy Dog menu of otherwise comforting classics really help the restaurant brand connect with guests, Simms says. Casual dining spots that focus on efficiency and cost will fall to the wayside, while those that understand that their guests are passionate about food will succeed.

“The definition of the next generation of casual dining had to include hand-crafted food and beverage,” Simms says. “We really like to be able to share that passion—that’s what we’re all about, connecting with our guests on a deeper level by sharing common passions.”

Must Love Dogs

Food isn’t the only passion Lazy Dog uses to connect with its guests. One look at the name leads to an accurate conclusion—Lazy Dog guests, and founders, are passionate about their dogs.

Lazy Dog didn’t actually set out to be a dog-friendly restaurant. In the first location’s early days, a guest came in with a pet and wanted to have lunch on the patio. The guest happened to have arrived at the same time that the health department was dining inside the restaurant. Simms thought, why not just take the opportunity to ask. The department said the dog could dine on the patio, no problem.

“And that’s how it started,” Simms says. “If I’m looking at the shared passions with our guests, we’ve got a group of guests who are very passionate about their dogs. There’s definitely a shared passion there that is important—we want to honor that furry member of the family.”

Going forward, Simms sees the opportunity to make even more out of that passion, perhaps curated pet products.

Lazy Dog

The Origin of the Dog

Lazy Dog was not created as a pet-focused restaurant. Instead the name was meant to evoke a feeling—the feeling of being welcomed home after a long day. Who's happiest to see you when you get home? Your dog.

As founder and CEO Chris Simms sat with his brother, Mike, ironing out the concept for the restaurant, the family's dog, Molly, was there at their feet. That's when the lightbulb moment occurred.

"What better way to say this is a place that is approachable, easygoing, welcoming, and excited to see you," Simms says. "We thought about the reaction a dog has when you get home, and I wanted our guests to feel like that."

The name conveys unconditional love and homecoming. It wasn't until the restaurant opened and a guest came to dine with her dog that the unconditional love was expanded to pet guests, too (only on the patio).

Living The Lazy Dog Way

A major hallmark of Simms’ definition of casual dining 2.0 seems to be providing ways for his guests to live the Lazy Dog brand. Sharing passions goes beyond the ambiance and menu. Lazy Dog recently launched its first beer club. The restaurant partnered with a few of its favorite breweries to develop collaboration beers—a major trend in the full-service dining segment. At Lazy Dog, the custom collabs are only available in quarterly kits. The first kit rolled out in February and Simms called the response “off the charts.”

“We’ve really found the demand from our guests; they truly trust what we’re doing,” he says. “They want more of what we find and what we think is great quality or just interesting.”

If the beer kits continue to succeed, Simms envisions looking for a way to extend what he finds on his menu R&D trips into product lines that guests can purchase from. “I think we’ve seen some very good traction with that.”

When it comes to living the brand, however, no one is more of a Lazy Dog than Simms himself, and he says it has to be that way. If the brand wasn’t so authentic, guests wouldn’t be down for it. Today’s guest, as he so accurately pin points, can sniff out a disingenuous brand from a mile away. But Lazy Dog has always been 100 percent pure Chris Simms through and through.

“I just did what I loved, I don’t really have any other way to say it,” Simms says of the company’s beginnings. “Because the concept was truly created out of my passions, I think it resonated with people.”

The Jackson Hole Connection

Another part of what makes Lazy Dog so truly Simms is the inspiration it takes from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where Simms spent childhood summers with his family, and spends summers with his three daughters today.

The first nod comes with the architecture and décor of a Lazy Dog restaurant. Guests will notice upon entering that everything feels big. That’s intentional. Simms wanted guests to feel how the mountains in Jackson Hole can make a person feel small.

“It puts things in perspective,” he says. “There’s a warmth to the décor that I wanted people to feel so they felt very comfortable as they sat down and were able to relax.”

Guests are then treated to what Simms calls Jackson Hole hospitality—servers are encouraged to remember guests’ names and what they’ve ordered in the past, as well as what they don’t like, in order to anticipate all of their needs.

“It’s a very personalized form of hospitality,” Simms says. “It’s one of our founding components so that our guests can truly relax and enjoy time with friends and family.”

Everything at Lazy Dog seems to come back to the word family, and Simms has created a business through teamwork that allows him the work-life balance to spend time with his. His daughters are 14, 11, and 8 years old. He takes them up to Jackson Hole as much as he can, leaning on his team to hold down the fort while he’s gone.

“That’s the family you love—I say that to everyone in the company. I don’t want you to work 100 hours a week; I want you to have plenty of time with your family and friends,” he says. “We can’t encourage our guests to sit in our restaurant and reconnect if we’re not doing the same thing.”

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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.

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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 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 Restaurant + Bar 9 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

Sources for data include company reports, SEC filings, and industry research.
Numbers with an asterisk* were gathered or estimated from the most recent annual report or SEC filing.
Estimates (e) are associated with privately held companies that do not release sales figures and are compiled from industry research.

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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.

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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.”

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