Fast-Casual Chains to Look Out for in 2018 Gallery
March 29, 2018
These lunchtime destinations are definitely worth knowing
Fast-Casual Chains to Look Out For In 2018
The “fast-casual” industry — think of places like Chipotle or Panera — is booming. According to Technavio, the market for fast-casual fare is expected to hit $66.87 billion by 2020, and there are dozens (if not hundreds) of fast-casual concepts that have opened in recent years that are going to be competing for their share of the pie, some as offshoots of major fast food chains and some from big-name fine dining chefs. Though some are bound to fail, these 12 chains are on a path to major success, and you should definitely be on the lookout for them in your neck of the woods.
Bobby’s Burger Palace
Bobby’s Burger Palace/Yelp
Chef Bobby Flay might be best known for his Southwest-inspired cooking, but it’s his burgers that might end up being his legacy. At the sleek Bobby’s Burger Palace, which got its start in New Jersey in 2008 and today has 17 locations in nine states and Washington, D.C., burgers come in a wide variety of styles (“crunchifying” them with potato chips on top is the signature move); and the milkshakes, fries, and onion rings are also worthy of high praise. All the recipes were created by Flay, who announced last November that he’s putting a licensing and franchising plan in place that will allow for rapid expansion. First up? A location opening this year in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.
By Chloe started out in 2015 on a very strong note — as one of the most popular counter-service restaurants in New York City — and has only grown from there. The chain made headlines last year when co-founder Chloe Coscarelli was forced out of the company after infighting, but owners Samantha Wasser and ESquared Hospitality (which owns more than 20 restaurants worldwide) have stayed true to the mission, serving creative vegan fare that’s so good even carnivores love it (its veggie burger is one of the best you’ll find, anywhere). Smart brand partnerships and a robust social media presence have helped its rise to fame; there are currently five New York locations (with one more on the way), two in Boston, one each in Los Angeles and Providence, and one in London (with another in the works).
Cheba Hut Toasted Subs
Toasted subs are nothing new in the fast-casual world, but Cheba Hut, which is entering its 20th year, has figured out how to crack the code. One, it offers more than 30 signature sandwiches made with fresh ingredients in three sizes; two, most locations also serve local craft beers; and three, its tongue-in-cheek cannabis theme has continued to catch on as marijuana legalization has gone more mainstream (and it’s hilariously unabashed about it — sandwich sizes are “nug,” “pinner,” and “blunt”). The chain’s mellow, low-key vibe has helped it expand out of its native Colorado and into six more states; there are currently 21 locations, and the company plans to capitalize on legalization by opening five to ten more locations annually.
City Barbecue was founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1999 by competition pitmaster Rick Malir, and today this award-winning barbecue can be found at 46 locations in seven states. Slow-smoked brisket, two types of pulled pork, turkey breast, pulled chicken with Alabama white sauce, and smoked sausage take inspiration from several different regional styles, and sides include mac and cheese, corn pudding, collards with pork, and gumbo. All meats are smoked in-house and all sides are scratch-made according to exacting specifications. The company is currently in the midst of an expansion that will see eight new locations open by the end of 2018.
If you live in New Orleans, you know (and love) Dat Dog. This fun and creative 6-year-old hot dog joint offers some unique sausages, more than 30 toppings, a solid bar, and late hours, and its three NOLA locations are just the tip of the iceberg: it announced last year that it’s launching a massive franchise program, with up to 50 new locations expected to open along the Gulf Coast within the next five years.
James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov is one of Philadelphia’s most renowned (he put his name on the map with his high-end Israeli destination, Zahav), and his fast-casual concept Dizengoff, modeled after the ubiquitous hummus stalls of Israel, has taken off since he first launched it with business partner Steve Cook in 2014. It’s currently up to four locations (including a super-popular one in New York’s Chelsea Market, which opened in 2016), and the chain’s absolutely stunning hummus, ornamented with seasonally-rotating toppings, will go as far as Solomonov wants to take it.
You probably know chef David Chang as the brains behind the Momofuku brand and the new Netflix series Ugly Delicious, but he’s also serving what very well might be the best spicy fried chicken sandwich in New York at Fuku’s six locations as well as at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. Chang is a master of branding and he’s clearly cracked the chicken sandwich code, and this simple, straightforward concept may be his ticket to fast-casual domination.
Two classically-trained chefs, Marley Hodgson and Dan Long, launched MAD Greens in 2004 and today there are 34 locations in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Texas. The secret to its success? Keeping the menu small, keeping the concept simple, and using only high-quality ingredients to craft its streamlined, chef-driven menu of salads, grain bowls, wraps, soups, and juices. And 2018 certainly shows promise: It’s exploring drive-thru, and is looking to expand into new markets like Austin.
Mixt features a wide variety of salads, grain bowls, and sandwiches, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options as well as creative design-your-own add-ins like marinated Hodo soy tofu, steelhead, roasted leeks, crispy dukkah chickpeas, and seasonal produce. It’s been in business since 2006 and currently has nine locations in San Francisco and two in LA, and the founders completely refreshed the brand a couple years ago, expanding the dinner menu and adding craft beer and wine as well as a kombucha bar. Plans are in motion to expand outside of California.
Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill
Naf Naf Grill/Yelp
Before becoming CEO of Chicago-based Naf Naf last June, Paul Damico was a top executive at Focus Brands (which owns companies including Auntie Anne’s, Carvel, Cinnabon, and Moe’s Southwest Grill), and before that he oversaw Moe’s expansion from 200 locations to 700 as its president. So if his past success is any indication, it won’t be long before a Naf Naf opens near you. The company focuses on falafel, shawarma, and steak bowls, served with customizable toppings and sauces, and there are currently 38 locations in seven states and Washington, D.C. (a Delaware location will be opening soon). The chain will soon launch franchising, however, and the fact that there’s already a wait list for potential franchisees is a very good sign.
Roti Modern Mediterranean
Roti Modern Mediterranean/Yelp
This Chicago-based chain is one of America’s fastest-growing, with 10 new locations opened in 2017 and even more expected to open this year. The concept is pretty straightforward: Start with a base of rice, laffe wrap, pita sandwich, or salad; add on proteins including chicken, steak, salmon, and falafel; and choose from a wide variety of Middle Eastern-inspired toppings, sauces, and sides. In 2015, the company changed its name from Roti Mediterranean Grill, overhauled its concept, and launched its current expansion plan, and today it’s up to 33 locations in five states and Washington, D.C.
Salt & Straw
Portland, Oregon-based Salt & Straw is already renowned on the West Coast for its inspired handmade ice cream flavors, which rotate regularly but might include Meyer lemon meringue pie, chocolate caramel potato chip cupcake, sweet corn and waffle cones, honey lavender, and Beecher’s cheese with peppercorn toffee. There really is no other ice cream shop quite like Salt & Straw, and people are catching on: Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group recently bought a significant minority stake in the company, which allowed it to open new locations in Seattle and San Francisco, build a commercial kitchen in Portland and a production facility in San Francisco, and launch a soft-serve concept called Wiz Bang Bar. It’s currently up to 13 locations, and there are many more to come; we’re just thankful that one of the world’s best ice cream parlors is also a chain.