This Hot Chicken Joint is America’s Top Emerging Chain – QSR magazine

Here was last year’s list for comparison:

  • 1. Cava
  • 2. Bartaco
  • 3. True Food Kitchen
  • 4. Dig Inn
  • 5. Mendocino Farms
  • 6. Urban Plates
  • 7. Lemonade
  • 8. The Little Beet
  • 9. Bibibop Asian Grill
  • 10. Punchbowl Social
  • 11. Hattie B’s Chicken
  • 12. Jollibee
  • 13. The Simple Greek
  • 14. East Hampton Sandwich Co.
  • 15. Grabbagreen
  • 16. The Halal Guys
  • 17. Homegrown Sandwiches
  • 18. Wagamama
  • 19. Kura Revolving Sushi Bar
  • 20. Super Duper Burgers
  • 21. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
  • 22. Belcampo Meat Co.
  • 23. Keke’s Breakfast Café
  • 24. Hook Burger
  • 25. Mi Cocina Tex Mex
  • 26. Tupelo Honey
  • 27. Burger Boss
  • 28. Dish Society
  • 29. Village Tavern
  • 30. Rock and Brews

The why behind the ratings

Fishbowl conducted “Sentiment Analysis” to look behind the review curtain. Five major components contribute to the value equation—food, beverage, ambiance, service, and price. When the value equation is unbalanced by any component, the experience suffers and the ratings reflect that.

Food topped the list of positive mentions for Fishbowl’s Top 10 emerging brands. Quality and freshness were expected, the company said, but flavor and uniqueness won over discerning reviewers. Good service was also a must. Ambiance proved a critical factor, too.

A quick COVID-19 side note, this historic equation could be in line for serious disruption.

A recent study showed that 63 percent of guests listed “safety precautions” as the most important aspect of the dine-in experience today. That was second only to “delicious food,” which clocked in at 74 percent.

This is going to show up on Yelp, Google, TripAdvisor, and so on, in the post-lockdown days. How your restaurant sated fears over COVID-19’s spread is going to be a review lever that influences customers who read these to show up or pass. And people will speak about the experience. The future of hospitality isn’t just tied to good service and great food anymore. It also boils down to making people feel secure and safe. That would have been an improbable notion just months ago, but it’s an anchor of this “new normal” that’s dominating discussion.

Fishbowl’s review sentiment for 2020:

  • Food positive: 23.5 percent
  • Service positive: 17.8 percent
  • Ambiance positive: 14.5 percent
  • Service negative: 11.3 percent
  • Price positive: 7 percent
  • Beverage positive: 7 percent
  • Food negative: 6.6 percent
  • Price negative: 6 percent
  • Ambiance negative: 3.6 percent
  • Beverage negative: 2.8 percent

To put it simply, great food, followed by service and ambiance, remained the top qualities of emerging brands. While other factors will enter the mix, those things won’t ever change.

A deeper dive into the top 10

1. Hattie B’s

Nashville, Tennessee

Founders: Nick Bishop, Sr., and Nick Bishop, Jr. in 2012

Locations: 7

Sentiment summary: Hattie B’s customers mention most hot chicken, friend chicken, mac n cheese, chicken sandwich, potato salad, banana pudding, and pimento mac. Other terms that popped were “worth the wait,” even when it’s a “long line” out the “door.”

2. Dish Society

Houston, Texas

Founder: Aaron Lyons

Locations: 6

Note: Counter service brand for breakfast, lunch, and brunch. Full-service dinner and social hour.

Sentiment summary: Shrimp and gouda grits, chicken biscuits, sweet potato, chicken sandwich, French toast, brisket eggs, and belly hash dominated mentions. “Great service,” and “friendly staff,” and “highly recommend” a “great experience,” also shined.

3. Bartaco

Fairfield County, Connecticut

Founders: Andy Pforzheimer and Sasa Mahr-Batuz, Barteca Restaurant Group (now owned by L Catterton after the firm bought Del Frisco’s for $650 million in June).

Locations: 21 across 12 states

Sentiment summary: Reviewers discuss “great customer service” and “delicious food,” from ingredients like pork belly, carne asada, fish, chicken chorizo, rock shrimp, and duck featured in tacos and quesadillas to corn, cucumber salad, and rice bowls. Customers “highly recommend,” the chain and will “definitely return,” especially for “happy hour.”

4. Mendocino Farm

Bunker Hill in Downtown LA

Founders: Mario Del Pero and Ellen Chen in 2003 (current CEO is Kevin Miles, the former head at Zoes Kitchen. Miles took over for Harald Herrmann, the former president of Darden’s $1.5 billion Specialty Restaurant Group, who left in February for nonprofit Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County. He led Mendocino Farms since 2017, when he took over as CEO following TPG Growth’s investment in the brand).

Of the above ownership, TPG Growth acquired its stake from L Catterton. The firm invested in Philz Coffee in September 2016 and has invested in consumer brands Airbnb, Spotify, Beautycounter, Gelson’s Markets, and e.l.f. Cosmentics. Amazon, on the heels of a 2015 investment from Whole Foods Market, is also an investor in Mendocino Farms.

Locations: 30

Sentiment summary: Guests “highly recommend” the “sandwiches and salads,” chicken, pork belly, banh mi, chicken salad, steak sandwich, quinoa salad, ad taco salad. “Super friendly service” was a bright spot as well.

5. Tupelo Honey

Asheville, North Carolina

Founded: 2000

Owner: Stephen Frabitore

Locations: 18

Notable: Chef Eric Gabrynowicz is a four-time James Beard Award semifinalist            .

Sentiment summary: The brand earned top marks for “fried chicken,” fried green tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, shrimp grits, and French toast. It did so for “great atmosphere,” and “Sunday brunch,” too.

6. Luke’s Lobster (first time nomination)

NYC

Founder: Luke Holden in 2009

Locations: 26

Sentiment summary: The “Shark Tank” winner earned raves for “fresh lobster rolls,” as well as “shrimp and crab.” Clam chowder, lobster mac, and grilled cheese also stood out from the “super friendly New England,” favorite.

7. The Little Beet

NYC

Founder: Andy Duddleston in 2014.

Locations: 11

Sentiment summary: The brand, which features a gluten-free array of items, was recognized for that effort, plus “healthy food and vegan options,” including Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, turmeric tahini, pickled onions, beet falafel, cauliflower steak, butternut squash soup, and kale salad.

8. Wagamama

Created in London in 1992

The chain is expanding into the U.S. after a recent joint venture partnership with Conversion Venture Capital. The late January deal added Robert Cornog Jr. and Richard Flaherty as operating partners—two operators who helped Punch Bowl Social grow. It’s an 80/20 joint venture partnership with The Restaurant Group (Wagamama’s parent company) to expand across the U.S. There are more than 200 locations in 27 countries, include six stateside.

Sentiment summary: Reviewers recommended varieties of ramen—chicken, shrimp, pork, rib, pork belly, and beef. Pad Thai, cauliflower, katsu curry, and steak bulgogi also were top mentioned. Signaling perhaps growth potential, reviewers frequently left a write up after their “first-time visit” and mentioned “thanks to the cuisine and great service,” and a “next time,” promise to come back up.

9. Tocaya Organica

Venice, California

Founders: Tosh Berman and Amrou Manaseer in 2016.

Locations: 17

Of note: The chain is an offshoot of full-service Mexican restaurant Toca Madera in Los Angeles. Both concepts are owned by The Madera Group. On January 29, the group announced plans to open 11 new locations throughout the U.S. and abroad by the end of 2019. This after receiving a $20.85 million capital investment from Breakwater Management LP in November.

Sentiment summary: Many menu items were mentioned frequently: plantain chips, chips and salsa, carne asada, cauliflower rice, fajitas, black beans, tortilla soup. “Keto bowl,” too. Reviewers also responded to specials like “Taco Tuesday” and “free chips.

10. Babalu (first-time nomination)

Jackson, Mississippi

Founders: Bill Latham and Al Roberts in 2011

Locations: 5

Of note: The chain was acquired by Memphis-based Spell Restaurant Group in October 2019. Eat Here Brands, the restaurant group that previously owned Babalu, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on July 30. Spell Restaurant Group won the bid to acquire the brand October 18. Babalu had grown to as many as nine locations.

Sentiment summary: Reviewers lauded tacos—pork belly, fish, shrimp, and chicken. Other entrees like the burger, crab croquette, steak and eggs, crab cakes and lamb sliders get raves, along with sides like street corn and Brussels sprouts. The” tableside guacamole” and “great atmosphere” make Babalu a favorite.