The first question nearly everyone asks an editor at Nation’s Restaurant News (after whether the conversation is off the record, of course), is what new restaurant brands are worth watching.

Our editorial team is spread from Boston to Los Angeles, making us the most connected to the vast restaurant industry of any media brand. We research and follow regional growth chains as well as independent restaurants in foodie cities like Portland or Chicago. We spot new trends like fast-casual pizza that exploded on the West Coast or molecular gastronomy that started in the East.

Your questions on what’s new aren’t odd. Americans are obsessed with newness. We pre-order new iPhones, we want to eat new greens (kale has apparently been replaced with purslane), we binge on new shows on new streaming services like Netflix, and we eat at new restaurants. It’s our culture; it’s who we are.

When I started thinking about this notion of new, I went back to old notes, as I vividly remembered speaking with The NPD Group’s Harry Balzer on how restaurants must always tap into newness. It was one of my first interviews nearly 10 years ago, and the idea still holds water.

“Gains are made by those getting people in the door using something new, something exciting,” he told me. “It must be a new choice from what we do today.”

That sentiment has never been truer. Consumer wants and demands have fundamentally changed — whether the expectation of higher food quality or the desire to linger in welcoming spaces while charging mobile devices — and restaurants need to meet those needs in new ways.

With that in mind, for the second year in a row, NRN is presenting the Breakout Brands special report. This is a look at 10 brands that have not only captured our attention, but also that of the industry. Four brands have recently received significant private equity investments from heavyweights like KarpReilly and Catterton Partners, and one brand even received a personal phone call from Chick-fil-A chief executive Dan Cathy after he tasted its signature brisket.

While a list of new and hot restaurant concepts is fun to read, we go deeper. What is important to most of you is how these brands have found a sweet spot and what makes them rising stars. To guide you through the report, we developed nine breakout factors, designated by icons, that are driving these brands — from the use of a healthful menu now demanded by many consumers, to the offering of a distinctive beverage program often desired by adult patrons and utilized by smart operators to build margins. As you go through the report, stop on these factors and consider them a cheat sheet for what inspired brands are doing to win today’s new consumer.

Today’s need for newness is different than that of yesterday; it’s driven by a world that is smarter, faster and more connected than ever before. Restaurant brands must find ways to break out and embrace this evolution of the consumer — or risk being left behind.

Contact Sarah E. Lockyer at sarah.lockyer@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @slockyerNRN