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Cafe Rio Mexican Grill

Sales: $117.7 million (+25.9%)
Headquarters: Salt Lake City
Market segment: LSR/Mexican
No. of units: 57 (+23.9%)
ESPU: $2.3 million (+0.2%)
Year founded: 1997

In the crowded fast-casual Mexican space, Cafe Rio Mexican Grill aims to stand out as a concept where food is prepared from scratch. From the tortillas — made from flour, water and shortening and served hot off the comal — to salsas, salad dressings and guacamole, everything is made in-house. Cafe Rio’s menu also is broader than that of competitors like Chipotle Mexican Grill. At Cafe Rio guests have the usual burrito, taco, bowl and salad options, but they can also choose items like enchiladas, tostadas, soups and desserts.

Bob Nilsen, a former president of Burger King and longtime executive of Yum! Brands Inc., bought the then-six-unit Cafe Rio chain from founder Steve Stanley in 2004. Nilsen was joined in the acquisition by private equity investor KarpReilly LLC, which has a number of restaurant brands in its portfolio, including Burger Lounge, Café Zupas, Sprinkles Cupcakes and Hooters.

Now in 10 states and growing, Cafe Rio plans to add 12 locations this year, all company owned, filling in existing markets. Last year, the chain added 11 locations.

First Watch

Sales: $113.5 million (+13.5%)
Headquarters: Bradenton, Fla.
Market segment: Family Dining
No. of units: 102 (+8.5%)
ESPU: $1.2 million (+3.1%)
Year founded: 1983

First Watch, the breakfast and lunch concept, has seen its estimated sales per unit grow 3.8 percent within the last year and its estimated overall sales spike 13.5 percent, all while maintaining rapid unit growth. And that’s all the more impressive since the chain is only open until 2 p.m. or 2:30 p.m. each day and has no alcohol sales. While other family-dining concepts have struggled to maintain growth over the past several years, First Watch is succeeding.

By 2017 First Watch hopes to have 300 or more restaurants in operation, said chief marketing officer Chris Tomasso. Target markets include southeast Florida; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Indianapolis. Most of the new units will be company owned. Only 10 percent of the current fleet are franchised units.

Although the growth is rapid, the plan for looking for new units is thoughtful. The company has specific demographic profiles it looks for when choosing locations, including assessing the potential for family lunchtime visits during the week and business breakfast in corporate parks and urban areas.