The top national chain restaurants may be where the biggest percentage of Americans dine out the most, but they’re not generally where those trends with the biggest growth potential emerge. Independent restaurants tend to be idiosyncratic, catering to local tastes rather than those of the whole nation. Nationwide flavor trends tend to bubble up somewhere between those two extremes—in small, emerging regional chains.
Here are some of the hottest trends with greatest potential for national adoption, all sprouting from emerging chains, according to Technomic. The food industry research firm tracks the growth of both national chains and emerging concepts, and also follows developing food trends through its online MenuMonitor database.
Americans are not generally renowned for their healthful diets, but both the nutritional message and the hankering for more authentic, feel-good food are finally making a difference. Although few consumers claim to follow a strict diet, more than half say they try to eat healthfully most of the time.
Healthy cues have changed over time. Today’s consumers look for a broad array of characteristics they believe are associated with health. Freshness is far and away the leading signal; virtually everyone equates food that is made fresh, looks fresh or is described as fresh with healthy dining. After freshness, the most important cue is food that is minimally processed.
The California-based fast-growing fast-casual Veggie Grill strives to redefine the way consumers think about vegetarian fare by offering 100 percent plant-based versions of familiar foods. Its Bombay Bowl with roasted vegetables, almonds and hemp seeds is listed on the “Mindful Living” menu, which is “curated to highlight items that are lower in calories, high in protein and nutrient-dense.”
Colorado fast-casual Modmarket specializes in healthy options made with grilled proteins, seasonal produce and housemade sauces. Entrées range from a Superfood Salad (spinach and kale blend, quinoa pilaf, feta, carrot, red grapes and Champagne vinaigrette) to a Chipotle Steak Sandwich (grilled steak, chipotle aïoli, mixed greens, Muenster cheese and tomato) to Prosciutto Pizza (Creminelli prosciutto, arugula, pears, Gorgonzola and three-cheese blend).
Miramar Beach, Fla.-based Another Broken Egg Café, one of a growing group of breakfast-and-lunch-only midscale concepts, offers a Skinny Omelet—herbed egg whites with blanched asparagus, roasted red peppers, onions and whole garlic cloves.
Caifornia-based casual-dining chain Paul Martin’s American Grill operates under the motto “Seasonal & Delicious.” The menu features sustainable seafood, free-range meats and peak-of-the-season produce. Fish tacos are made with housemade flour tortillas and served with seasonal sides; hanger steak is served chimichurri-style; and a Three Mushroom Burger comes with a mushroom patty, arugula and fresh pesto aïoli.
Healthful Global Cuisines
In part because of the wide perception that the Mediterranean diet is healthful, the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern segment is growing fast. It’s characterized by a focus on simple, fresh preparations: Meats are roasted or grilled instead of fried; healthy fats like olive oil are a main ingredient; and meals are commonly seasoned with herbs like oregano, mint and basil rather than excessive amounts of salt. Some concepts highlight their dedication to freshness by featuring open kitchens with views of rotisseries and items being grilled to order.
Roti Mediterranean Grill, based in Chicago, serves high-quality Mediterranean fare in a fast-food setting; patrons watch as their food is prepared on an assembly-line-style counter. Customers order their meal by picking a base (sandwich, salad or Mediterranean plate), then a meat, followed by a selection of vegetables. The meals are highly customizable with toppings and sauces, including Spanish eggplant, Kalamata olives, sumac-seasoned onions and roasted peppers.
Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill is a Denver-based fast casual that promotes its made-from-scratch, no-preservatives menu, which focuses on pitas and laffas (thin disks of unleavened bread) stuffed with chicken, steak, falafel or hummus and vegetables. Signature items include chicken shawarma and steak shawarma; chips, hard-boiled eggs, grilled eggplant and pita bread are the menued sides.
California’s Tavérna Blu is a casual-dining spinoff of fast-casual Daphne’s California Greek. The menu kicks off with mezes like Housemade Dolma (warm grape leaves stuffed with tomato, rice and herbs). Larger plates, like a slow-braised lamb shank in a red-wine reduction, are served with sautéed vegetables, pita and a choice of rice, feta fries or Greek salad.
Technomic data shows fast-casual burger chains growing 11.6 percent in sales in 2013 even as the entire burger sector grew just 1.4 percent. Innovative, chef-created specialty burgers are proliferating in these fast casuals and are providing inspiration to other full-service and limited-service restaurants looking to beef up their burger menus. Build-your-own-burger options feature customizable proteins, buns, cheeses and condiments. As beef prices continue to rise, these better-burger concepts are stressing alternatives to traditional beef burgers—bison, turkey, elk and salmon as well as veggie patties. Another trend is the growth of creative sides and beverages, from sweet-potato fries to nontraditional milkshake flavors.
These fast-growing burger concepts offer key points of differentiation: Mooyah has a to-the-point menu of build-your-own burgers plus fries and shakes; The Habit focuses on a limited menu of signature burgers as well as sandwiches and salads; BurgerFi and Shake Shack take the middle ground, serving both build-your-own burgers and original creations.
Southern California-based Umami Burger sets itself apart by grinding beef in-house. Patties are infused with the chain’s signature sauce and topped with a range of ingredients. The Valentine’s Day special was a Heart Throb Burger topped with fried shiitake mushrooms, bacon lardons, heart-shaped fried truffled ricotta with goat cheese, arugula and a truffle-port reduction.
Wayback Burgers, based in Cheshire, Conn., is known for its Burger of the Month and Shake of the Month specials, like an Extreme Burger (featuring bacon, chili, American cheese, ketchup and french fries) with a cinnamon snickerdoodle milkshake; a Chorizo Burger with chipotle mayo, plus a salted caramel shake; or a Cuban Burger and a pineapple shake. Housemade potato chips are another point of differentiation.
Bobby’s Burger Palace, also known as BBP, is a modified fast-casual chain created by celebrity chef and cookbook author Bobby Flay. The menu reflects Flay’s travels across the United States, with gourmet burgers named for cities and regions, from Miami (pressed with ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard and mayo) to Dallas (a spice-crusted burger with coleslaw, Monterey Jack, barbecue sauce and pickles) to Los Angeles (with avocado relish, watercress, cheddar and tomato). Burgers are complemented by salads, fries, onion rings and milkshakes.
Targeting Millennials in particular, growing pizza chains in all segments are increasingly underscoring pizza quality through hand-tossed pizza and, in many cases, wood- or coal-burning ovens that burn as high as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit to create pies with thin, crisp, authentically flavored crusts. Artisanal and made-to-order preparations and a wide variety of toppings, cheeses, proteins and sauces typify these menus. Here are some of the fastest-growing limited-service and full-service chains:
Russo’s New York Pizzeria is a quick-service pizza joint offering premium New York-style pies. All food is prepared onsite with quality ingredients using family recipes, and pizza comes from a custom-built coal-fired oven—the centerpiece of each restaurant. Flatbread sandwiches with meatballs, chicken, deli meats and vegetables are also served. The Houston-based company is also growing a casual-dining brand extension, Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen, with an expanded menu and extensive wine list.
Brixx Wood Fired Pizza is a fast-casual chain based in Charlotte, N.C., and specializing in handcrafted pizzas prepared in wood-burning brick ovens. Each 10-inch pizza is topped with whole-milk mozzarella, Gorgonzola and/or Gouda cheese. Starters include dips, soups and bruschetta; salads are made with locally grown greens and can be topped with wood-roasted chicken, shrimp or salmon. Sandwiches are prepared with the chain’s own freshly baked focaccia bread and enhanced with proprietary dressings and aïolis. Pasta entrées feature housemade sauces and wood-roasted chicken, shrimp and Italian sausage. Customers are also drawn by the extensive list of wines, microbrews and dozens of beers on tap.
Grimaldi’s Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., is a traditional casual-dining chain drawing inspiration from the New York pizzeria tradition; the pizzas and calzones are prepared in coal-fired brick ovens to give them a unique flavor and crisp crust. Guests create their own pizza or calzone with a choice of toppings such as artichoke hearts, meatballs, mushrooms, ham, pesto, basil, Kalamata olives, grilled chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, ricotta cheese, fresh garlic, anchovies, oven-roasted sweet red peppers and jalapeños. There are also seasonal options, like a recent Rosemary Potato pizza—a white pizza topped with thinly sliced potatoes, rosemary and Gorgonzola.
Raising a Glass
While full-service establishments have generally not been growing as fast as limited-service restaurants, beer- and wine-focused concepts have been the exception. Consumers are seeking greater variety in beer and wine, and operators are responding with craft-beer menus and wines-by-the-glass selections, often paired with upscale food.
Marlow’s Tavern is a contemporary casual-dining chain offering a varied menu of elevated American comfort foods served from an open kitchen. Salads, sandwiches and burgers form the core menu. Signature items at the Duluth, Ga.-based chain include shrimp and grits, crispy black chicken, steak frites, pan-seared ruby trout and blazed honey jack salmon. Patrons can pair items such as shrimp-and-crab nachos and wagyu beef burgers with a local craft beer or a glass of wine (all bottles are available by the glass).
Ohio-based Winking Lizard Tavern boasts an extensive bottle and tap beer selection of brews from around the world along with an extensive menu of classic bar food for lunch, dinner and late-night dining. Hall of Fame BBQ includes multiple styles of barbecue ribs and chicken. Wings come in 15 types, including 911, Caribbean, honey mustard, Thai, spicy sesame, Cajun and garlic flavors. Other chicken dishes include Chicken Parmesan, Buffalo Chicken and Jerk Chicken. The dessert menu features a housemade root-beer float and a Snickers pie.
Carmel Café & Wine Bar is a Florida-based modern Mediterranean wine bar that draws inspiration from the cuisines of Spain, Italy, Greece and Southern France. An iPad ordering system allows guests to browse the menu, view possible wine pairings and then order. Menu options include Basque crab cake with roasted almonds and avocado salad, braised short ribs with polenta and olive tapenade, and Moroccan lemon chicken with pine nuts, saffron, olives, lemon and vegetable couscous. Seasonal specials are offered regularly. A brunch menu includes crab cake Benedict and ham-and-egg panini.
Max’s Wine Dive offers a wine list featuring about 30 options by the glass; other wines are available on tap at the Texas-based concept. In addition to wine, Max’s is known for its Famous Southern Fried Chicken—housemade jalapeño-buttermilk marinade, deep-fried with mashed potatoes, collard greens and brioche Texas toast. Other upscale comfort foods include Nacho Mama’s Oysters (fried Gulf Coast oysters and garlic aïoli on fried wontons with housemade habanero salsa and fresh cilantro) and Pan Borracho (torn sourdough baguette, prosciutto and fresh thyme soaked in a white-wine custard, baked with Gruyère, provolone and Parmigiano-Reggiano).