Franchising and growth: Zagat readers reveal favorite 'up-and-coming' fast casual concepts

Sept. 23, 2015 | by Cherryh Cansler
Franchising and growth: Zagat readers reveal favorite 'up-and-coming' fast casual concepts

Chipotle and Shake Shack are often credited with fueling the fast casual industry, and although they were once as exciting as the new kid in school, they are now viewed as the industry’s grandparents.

That begs the question: "What concepts do consumers think are new and exciting?"

Zagattried to answer the question this week when its readers revealed their favorite up-and-coming fast casual chains in what Zagat calls the “post-Shack era.” To be considered, the brands were required to have between two and 50 units. A smattering of readers' choices is below.


When it comes to burgers, Zagat surveyors said they consumed them most frequently when they visited fast casuals (51  percent), followed by Mexican at 44 percent, American food at 34 percent and pizza at 29 percent. Aside from Shake Shack, some favorites included:

  • Former Top Chef Spike Mendelsohn's Good Stuff Eatery born in 2008 in DC and run as a family business. It specializes in burgers with all ingredients coming from the local farming community.
  • Bobby Flay's Bobby's Burger Palacehas 19 units and serves burgers, shakes and fries.
  • Hopdoddy was born in Austin but seems to be a favorite among north Texans. It's known for using beef from humanely raised cows that have never been given growth hormones or antibiotics. Meat is ground in-house, buns are baked from scratch twice daily and fries are hand-cut from Kennebec taters.
  • Pincho Factory, a mini burger chain in Miami that severs burgers between fried plantains.


With beef prices at an all-time high, focusing on chicken seems like a smart business move. A couple new standouts include:

  • Based in Chicago, Leghorn Chicken is a fried chicken eatery serving up unusual menu items, including the bird pickle brined and the Nashville hot on a bun.
  • Delia’s ChickenStand, with two locations, serveschicken sausages and sliders made from all natural ingredients sourced locally and free of hormones and preservatives.


The fast casual pizza industry has no shortage of new players, but Zagat readers seemed most impressed with:

  • Your Pie, born in Athens, Georgia, is now in Atlanta and allows consumers to build their own pizzas and then bakes them in a brick oven.
  • OTTO,a small chain created in Portland, is known for its specialty combinations of super fresh ingredients, including butternut squash pizza topped with ricotta and cranberry.
  • Pizaro's Pizza Napoletanais based in Houston and allows customers to BYOB to drink with thin-crust pizzas cooked in 90 seconds at 900 degrees.


The Hispanic category is one of the most interesting as it lends itself to a variety of formats and cuisines. A variety of chains made Zagat's list and here are a few top choices.

  • Tortas Fronteras, launched by Chef Rick Bayless in Chicago’s O’Hare airport in 2012, is a Mexican​-inspired sandwich stand located inside airports and malls around the country.
  • Yucatan Taco Standis a Latin-fused concept born in Dallas that serves tacos, tamales, chile rellenos and enchiladas.
  • Launched in Austin, Torchy's Tacosdelivers a variety of tacos with innovative ingredients, including the Dirty Sanchez, a fried poblano pepper with scrambled eggs, cheese and guacamole; and The Trailer Park taco, featuring fried chicken, green chiles, lettuce, pico de gallo and cheese.
  • Dos Toroswas born in Manhattan and is on a mission to overtake Chipotle. "I think we’re a better burrito. We’re not afraid to come and compete with them,” Dos Toros co-founder Oliver Kramer said in a recent interview in The Brooklyn Paper.


Ordering lobster may have once seemed taboo, but a couple new concepts are specializing in it.

  • Offering fresh Maine lobster, crab and shrimp rolls, Luke’s Lobsterhas 17 units throughout New York, Boston and Chicago and serves a few coastal staples, including clam chowder and Maine Root soda.
  • Red Hook Lobster Poundhas been open in Brooklyn since 2009, where it has a food truck and sells over 5,000 lobster rolls a day.


Although Panda Express and Pei Wei seem to have the Asian fast casual market covered, these up-and-coming concepts are coming on strong.

  • bbbop Seoul Kitchenis a Korean concept founded by brother-and-sister team Sandra Bussey and Steve Shin that features the bibimbop rice bowl, a name-your-protein-and-veggies bowl.
  • ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchenis based in DC and is Chipotle’s foray into Asian fast casual. Customers choose their base of rice, noodles or salad and then add proteins, veggies and toppings.
  • Num Pang, which serves Cambodian-inspired sandwiches, opened in 2009 in NYC, now has six units with two more planned by the end of the year.
  • Sushirrito offers made-to-order sushi burritos in Asian and Latin flavors. It has four units in San Fran and one in Palo Alto.


With consumers demanding fresh and healthy food, it makes sense Mediterranean concepts are finding success:

  • Amsterdam Falafelshop allows customers to order three or five balls of falafel in a pita with a choice of 22 toppings and sauces and also serves fries.
  • Cava Grill is known to DC residents as a place to get a healthful, sustainable meald and lets diners build their owns meals out of rice, pita or salad and then choices of proteins and toppings.


Although there isn't more of a "standard" food than the "sandwich," these chains are turning sandwiches into something special:

  • Gby Mike Isabella is full-service restaurant at night but fast casual sandwich shop between 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and boasts innovate subs, including the roasted cauliflower sub and the spiced baby goat sub.
  • Ike'sis known for huge sandwiches and has 16 units across the San Francisco Bay area with a menu that pays tribute to local celebrities and athletes.


Because the fast casual format and price point are so popular with consumers, a variety of innovative concepts have popped up that can't be categorized into a specific genre. Some of Zagat's faves are:

  • Velvet Tacois a Texas-based chain now in Chicago that serves house-made tortillas filled with a variety of international cuisine, including Indian-style with fried paneer and tomato chutney and a squid-feta-Greek salad combo.
  • The Cheese Course, born in Miami, boasts more than 150 artisanal cheeses and an extensive wine list. It also serves soups and sandwiches.
  • TaKorean began as a food truck combining Korean flavors with Mexican tacos. Customers choose a protein, a type of slaw and may add toppings, including lime crema or Korean-style salsa roja.
  • My Ceviche specializes in its namesake, the ceviche bowl, where customers may choose among fish, rice and sauce; tuna burrito with avocado and charred corn on the cob.
  • Clover Food Labhas been around since 2008, when MIT grad Ayr Muir opened it hoping to combine fast food’s price point and convenience with fresh, regionally sourced foods. He’s passionate about sustainability and relies on compostable materials, and his food trucks run on recycled vegetable oil.
  • Tocabe is in Denver and specializes in Native American cuisine. Ben Jacobs, a member of the Oklahoma-based Osage tribe, owns the concept and created the menu as a tribute to Indian fry bread tacos. Fans may pack tacos with shredded bison and New Mexico green chiles or grilled chicken and hominy.
  • Carnitas' Snack Shack, based in San Diego, features a variety of pork dishes, including sandwiches and tacos.
  • The Protein Bar, with locations in Chicago, Washington and Denver, serves protein-driven wraps and bowls filled with whole grains, all-natural meats and vegetables.


Topics: Trends / Statistics

Cherryh Cansler
Before joining Networld Media Group as director of Editorial, where she oversees Networld Media Group's nine B2B publications, Cherryh Cansler served as Content Specialist at Barkley ad agency in Kansas City. Throughout her 17-year career as a journalist, she's written about a variety of topics, ranging from the restaurant industry and technology to health and fitness. Her byline has appeared in a number of newspapers, magazines and websites, including Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine. She also serves as the managing editor for wwwView Cherryh Cansler's profile on LinkedIn

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