EJ Reed (left), Clint Gray (middle) and Derrick Moore co-founded Slim & Husky’s. /Photo courtesy of Slim & Husky’s.
It’s harder to grow a successful restaurant concept than ever before, but that doesn’t stop the innovation coming.
The emerging chains worth watching this year include several Black-owned concepts, including a pizza chain out of Nashville, Tenn., and the Atlanta-based Slutty Vegan. Breakfast is also a hot category, and a fast-casual brand that promises to make Indian food more accessible.
Also stepping up to the next phase of growth are three very different chicken concepts, a chain of micro coffeehouses and a robotic pizza truck.
Here are the emerging concepts to watch in 2023.
The 12-unit Starbird expanded from Northern to Southern California in 2022 and launched a national franchising program. Another 16 to 20 corporate stores are planned by the end of 2023, with help from a $12 million capital raise led by KarpReilly. Founded in 2016 in the San Francisco area by industry veteran Aaron Noveshen, the fast-casual Starbird brand has grown to include the original fried chicken tender concept and several virtual brands: Starbird Salads, Starbird Bowls, Starbird Wings and the plant-based Gardenbird. Average unit volumes in 2021 were $3.6 million, and expected to climb after boasting double-digit comps in 2022.
Keke’s Breakfast Café
Denny’s made big news in 2022 when it acquired the 53-unit Keke’s Breakfast Café, a breakfast-and-lunch concept out of Florida with a cult following. While Denny’s is building its lunch-and-later dayparts, the company saw an opportunity with Keke’s, which has a higher level of craft on the menu and somewhat higher prices, but is a simple operation ripe for franchising outside Florida.
Maple Street Biscuit Co.
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. is pushing forward with expansion of its secondary Maple Street Biscuit concept, with 15 to 20 new units planned for the 2023 fiscal year, including three that opened during the Oct. 28-ended first quarter for a total of 54. Known for “comfort food with a twist,” Maple Street is designed to appeal to younger diners, with dishes like The Five and Dime (fried chicken strips, bacon, cheddar and a fried egg on a biscuit with gravy) or the Squawking Goat (fried chicken strips, goat cheese and sweet pepper jelly).
Cornbread Farm to Soul
This concept was developed by an IHOP franchisee Adenah Bayoh who saw demand for soul food favorites not found at big chains. Cornbread first opened in New Jersey in 2017, and the chain ended the year with four units in the New York area and more to come. The company also won a $5 million investment from New Voices Fund and Trident, two Black-owned venture firms, and Bayoh is hoping to position the brand to draw more women into franchising.
Founders Table Restaurant Group invested $5 million in this five-unit chicken-and-waffle concept, which is planning expansion in New York City, Los Angeles and beyond. With the investment, Founders Table CEO Nick Marsh, who is also CEO of the Chopt Creative Salad Co., joined Sweet Chick’s board. The Founders Table portfolio also includes the burrito concept Dos Toros and the Caribbean-inspired Fieldtrip.
Slim & Husky’s
Three friends from Nashville, Tenn., started this fast-casual pizza concept, which is also known for outrageous cinnamon rolls. The idea was to bring the freshly made oblong pizzas to underserved neighborhoods, but the nine-unit brand has also been embraced by sports stadiums, and the trio behind it are positioning for national growth, with 10 to 15 planned by the end of 2024. Slim & Husky’s comes from Music City, but in this case, the music is hip hop (not country), and the founders hope to promote local artists wherever they go. Two restaurants also have art galleries attached.
You’re already watching this growing plant-based concept, but don’t look away. Slutty Vegan won a $25 million investment from Danny Meyer’s Enlightened Hospitality Investments and the New Voice Fund in 2022. Planning to reach about 25 units by the end of 2023, CEO Pinky Cole makes plant-based eating fun, with indulgent burgers named things like the One Night Stand, the Fussy Hussy and the Hollywood Hooker.
With only three units, this fast-casual Indian concept based in Washington, D.C. won a significant investment from Rellevant Partners in 2022. The plans are to expand on the East Coast, initially. The goal is to build an Indian brand that is affordable and accessible, with dishes like Tikka Chance on Me (chicken tikka) and Goa Your Own Way (spiced beef in coconut-ginger sauce).
This fried chicken and donuts concept was founded in 2011 as a side gig for the CookNSolo group in Philadelphia, created by chef Michael Solomonov and restaurateurs Tom Henneman and Steve Cook, also known for the acclaimed restaurant Zahav and small chains like Dizengoff and Goldie. In 2022, the 11-unit Federal Donuts won a significant investment from private-equity firm NewSpring Franchise for expansion. Franchising is in the works.
Created by former SpaceX engineers, Stellar Pizza launched its first robotic truck in Los Angeles in late 2022. The concept also won $16.5 million in Series A funding led by Jay-Z’s venture capital firm Marcy Venture Partners. It’s a fully automated pizza-making robot that travels in the back of a food truck, serving affordable, fresh-out-of-the-oven pies for delivery.
Blank Street Coffee
Born during the pandemic out of a tiny coffee cart, Blank Street Coffee has proliferated with labor-light micro cafes offering the speed and convenience of digital ordering and low prices. The chain has 60 units in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and London, with another 10 planned for next year. The concept has raised $67 million so far, and the current plan is to fill in existing markets.
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