This section spotlights the most innovative foodservice chain concepts.
Energy Kitchen is proof that Americans are getting more serious about their health. Every item on the seven-year-old chain's menu is less than 500 calories. All of its dishes are grilled, baked or steamed. Yes, there are salads, but also burgers, wraps and robust breakfast items.
A dual focus on product innovation and delivering a customer service experience that leaves guests smiling is fast putting Menchie's on the map — the entire map. From just three units in 2008, the company expects to pass the 200-store mark this year. By early 2012 the self-serve, pay-by-weight fro-yo concept will have a presence in every U.S. state, as well as in five international markets.
Circle the wagons, slash prices and hold on tight? Not these chains. Coming off of the toughest operating environment in recent memory, companies now solidly in positive territory and positioned to prosper as the turnaround takes hold are those that spent the past couple of years innovating, shaking up their menus and concepts, and making strategic moves to create new opportunities for growth.
Fresh-baked bagels and "darn good" coffee may be what brought Einstein Bros. to the top of its niche, but the company's focus on product innovation is helping to keep it there. Einstein has positioned its traditional bagel bakery concept as much more than bagels, building a menu of on-trend breakfast, lunch and specialty beverage options that satisfy consumers' lifestyle and nutrition demands.
When a chain restaurant with a healthy concept seeks out non-traditional locations, the result is a win-win. At least this is the case with Newton, Mass.-based UFood Grill, which has four company-owned locations and four franchised sites.
A good idea should not go to waste; instead it should be franchised. This was the impetus behind the growth of Tempe, Ariz.-based Tilted Kilt, which has grown from one location to 53 in the six years since Ron Lynch joined the company as operating franchise president.
Upgrades are the name of the game in 2011 for Ridgeland, Miss.-based McAlister's Deli. The 304-unit chain is revamping its equipment package to maximize efficiency and speed of service and ingredients to focus on providing a more upscale product.
While many chains continue to downsize their footprints, 57-year-old Straw Hat Pizza takes the opposite route. A new prototype features bigger stores with a contemporary look and feel, a bigger, more diverse menu, and in-restaurant Tower 27 frozen yogurt stations — a whole new self-serve branded "concept within a concept" that's helping to drive incremental sales growth.
Currently in a major growth mode, Jersey Mike's opened 50 stores in 2010, projects opening more than 65 locations this year and will hit the 500-site mark by the end of 2011. This is telling for a sub concept that got its start back in 1956 as a humble seaside sandwich store in Point Pleasant, N.J.
Less than five years after launching its "smash. sizzle. savor." next-gen burger concept, Smashburger in May celebrated the milestone opening of its 100th unit. By year's end, the company expects to almost double in size again and be operating in 30 to 35 markets nationwide.