Fast casual chains such as Baja Fresh, Fuddruckers and MOOYAH are among several concepts starting the New Year with new openings across the United States. The openings symbolize the continued success of the fast casual segment, which saw unit growth of 5 percent during the 2011 fourth quarter. In Fall 2010, fast casual chains tracked by market research firm NPD Group, accounted for 13,364 locations. In Fall 2011, the number of fast casual restaurants grew to 14,031.
"Strong performance and above-average unit economics have provided increasing appeal and investment by entrepreneurs in this part of the restaurant industry," said Darren Tristano, vice president at research firm Technomic. "Consumer demand for better quality food served, a contemporary experience and reasonable price points have fueled unit growth activity as many emerging chains continue to strive for a dominant leadership position within each fast casual menu category."
Domestic growth is a positive sign of things to come for the segment this year, as several chains used 2011 to embark on international expansion plans.
To start off the year stateside, Baja Fresh has announced a new opening in Los Gatos, Calif., that also will unveil a new "Guest Choice" store prototype that encompasses the chain's latest restaurant design, service and customizable menu.
A new interior design includes the use of natural wood, stone and warm colors, in addition to a more accommodating seating plan. Additionally, the menu has been designed to incorporate more customization and healthier options, such as wheat tortillas. Finally the guest will experience a new service style with entrees delivered tableside.
While the chain is not unveiling a new design, Freebirds World Burrito will spend 2012 expanding its presence in California. To do this, the company has announced a Jan. 12 opening in Temecula, which will bring the total number of locations in the state to 10.
Sara Barker, marketing and communications representative for Freebirds parent company, Tavistock Restaurants, said the company plans to open 20 locations in 2012, primarily in the Sunshine State.
"In California, we are looking all around the state, with planned openings (leases executed) in Temecula, Folsom, Foster City, Huntington Beach and San Jose," she said.
Meanwhile, the chain also will continue with its expansion plan in Texas and is looking to open this year in the markets of Houston, Rosenberg, Conroe, Fort Worth and San Angelo.
The better burger category has been one of tremendous growth for the segment, with concepts opening or expanding among the likes of Fuddrucker's, MOOYAH, Five Guys, Tom & Eddie's, The Habit and Smashburger.
After several years of slumping sales and an acquisition, Fuddrucker's is back on the growth track.
The concept opened in Del Rio, Texas, in a location previously occupied by Luby's Cafeteria. Fuddrucker's was acquired by Luby's in June 2010 for an estimated $63 million.
The acquisition created several growth opportunities for both brands and the new restaurant represents the second Fuddruckers location for franchisee MCM Restaurants Del Rio LLC, which also owns and operates the nearest store in Eagle Pass, Texas.
MOOYAH saw record growth in 2011 through the expansion out of its home state of Texas into California, Connecticut and Tennessee. However, it rings in 2012 with development contracts and agreements in place for more than 300 units. This year, the brand plans to nearly double the number of existing units, adding locations in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C.
"We are super excited about the year ahead," said MOOYAH president Alan Hixon. "A number of challenges do still exist in the world today but some of the best opportunities arise during challenging times if you are prepared to capitalize on them. We are coming right out of the gate with 14 new locations in Q1. Game on!"
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As the founder of P-O-P Content & Communications, Valerie Killifer brings her passion for creative thinking and relationship development to the forefront of her business. She spent 15 years as a professional journalist and continues to write about the brands, people and trends impacting the restaurant industry.