The dominant restaurant chains in the NRN Top 100 often get the big headlines: Chick-fil-A overtaking KFC; McDonald’s reporting its first dip in same-store U.S. traffic in more than 30 years; or Chipotle stealing share from, well, just about everyone. They represent the current state of affairs in the restaurant industry. 

But it’s the future of the industry that’s tackled in this NRN Second 100 report. Growth chains like Twin Peaks, Smashburger, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers and Marco’s Pizza are heralding in new, specialized concepts that are ready to challenge the big boys.

These brands are more nimble, and can navigate changing consumer preferences and penchants more easily than the mature restaurant chains. These brands also have grown up in a digital age. Much like the inherent comfort that Millennials and younger generations feel with consumer technologies, these newer restaurant chains came of age with technologies driving digital marketing, customer relationship management, online ordering and social media branding. These tools are inherent to these brands, not something that needs to be learned, adopted or developed.

The stories you’ll see here throughout this issue and expanded online at NRN.com will give you a glimpse of what’s to come. You’ll find some themes throughout that can’t be ignored:

• Casual dining is not dead; it has just grown up. Brands including Seasons 52, Bar Louie and Bahama Breeze each posted double-digit sales growth in the latest year reflected here, challenging the notion that consumers no longer will pay or want to experience full-service, casual dining.

• Franchising is as strong as ever. Chains like Marco’s Pizza and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit saw unit gains upwards of 30 percent, driven by aggressive franchise development.

• Specialized brands are grabbing consumer attention. Consumers are happy to enjoy craveable yet limited brands, especially if food quality tops the charts. Portillo’s Hot Dogs is a great example of a small, emerging brand that has developed a cult following and continues to see nothing but growth ahead.

These are lessons even the big boys can learn from.

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