The 2014 Nation’s Restaurant News’ Next 20 chains vary greatly in positioning and business histories, but explosive growth and new-store development are a common theme.

The Next 20’s roster members — whose performance was tracked during research for NRN’s annual Top 200 census of chains ranked by United States systemwide foodservice sales — had an average of 25.9 percent unit growth in their latest fiscal years. That compared with an average growth rate of 2.9-percent in domestic sites for the entire Top 200.

Reflecting the Next 20’s high rate of unit growth, as well as improvements in store-level performance by most brands on the roster, the group had average Latest-Year growth in U.S. systemwide sales of 30.5 percent, which compared with an average 4.1 percent growth of the entire universe of chains in the Top 200.

Diverse concepts

Now in its second year, the Next 20 this year features chains as different as Mastro’s, a 10-unit group of high-end table-service Steakhouse and Ocean Club seafood restaurants, with Latest-Year estimated sales per unit, or ESPU, of $13.6 million, and 104-location Robeks Fresh Smoothies & Juices, with an ESPU of $387,000.

Included among Next 20 brands are secondary concepts of companies known largely for other chains, such as the Mitchell’s Fish Market division of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse-parent Ruth’s Hospitality Group Inc., and RA Sushi, the sister chain to Benihana of Tokyo, both of which are operated by Angelo, Gordon & Co.-owned Benihana Inc.

Some Next 20 concepts have overcome recent adversity, such as Fog Cutter Capital Group’s Fatburger chain. That brand had two related businesses file for bankruptcy in 2009 and ultimately saw its U.S.-restaurant count decrease by 30 locations, or 29.1 percent, to 73, in 2011, before rebounding to 80 units in total by the end of 2013.

Granite City Food & Brewery grew its unit base by 11.1 percent, or three restaurants, in fiscal 2013, but also saw its parent’s common stock delisted by the NASDAQ exchange for the company’s failure to meet the market’s threshold for shareholder equity. Granite City management blamed the problem on pre-opening expenses for debuts planned for 2013 and beyond and the depreciation from new restaurants.

Brussels-based Le Pain Quotidien, one of two foreign-based chains, is a bakery-cafe player with a hybrid format combining table-service in the dining room and counter-service for takeout.

Chicken chain Pollo Campero, the  other chain from beyond our borders, reported systemwide same-store sales growth of 7 percent and 8 percent for fiscal 2013 and 2012, respectively. Tim Pulido, chief executive of Campero USA Corp. and Pollo Campero International, said the chain’s U.S. operations are benefitting from “greater Hispanic consumer frequency” as that group warms to the Guatemalan-based chain’s “authentic pan-Latin menu,” as well as trial and frequency among non-Hispanic consumers who are becoming more accepting of spicy foods. Helping to win over users of all types, he said, were moves to update branding and restaurant design, menu modifications, and such operational moves as the addition of more bilingual employees in the stores to better serve non-Hispanic speaking customers.

While compiled in conjunction with the Top 200, the Next 20’s makeup does not necessarily reflect those chains that would be ranked Nos. 201 through 220 on the basis of reported or estimated Latest-Year U.S. sales. The list excludes chains that fell out of the Top 200 in the past five years, as well as the brands that were previously named to the Next 20 roster.

Still, several of the chains in this year’s Next 20 group — ­if they enjoy similar rates of sales growth in their current fiscal years — could make a strong run at a 2015 Second 100 ranking, including Mastro’s, family-dining specialist Black Bear Diner, Mediterranean fast-casual player Zoës Kitchen, Peter Piper Pizza and Le Pain Quotidien.

On average, in the Latest Year, Next 20 chains, at 89.5 units each, were 11.6 times smaller than their Top 200 peers, with an average of 1,040 locations. Saleswise, the gap was even greater, as Next 20 chains had average Latest-Year U.S.-systemwide sales of $86.1 million, while Top 200 chains’ sales average was $1.23 billion.

Next 20 concepts generated a higher average estimated sales per unit in the Latest Year, at about $2.8 million, than the Top 200, with a $2.2-million average — most likely as a result of the Next 20’s high percentage of high volume casual-dining chains.