By Nicolas Fernandes | Chipotle started out as a single burrito shop in Denver before it stole the fast-food stage from McDonald’s. The Mexican chain is the face of the so-called fast casual movement that offers healthier fare and more customized options in a flash. Now smaller rivals are taking aim at the industry’s biggest star. Here’s a look at five players that are hoping to break out like Chipotle.
Sweetgreen is essentially a salad bar on steroids. Along with fresh and affordable salads, it serves soup, rice bowls and grain bowls all for around $10. The chain also lives up to its “green” name — sustainable packaging, locally sourced ingredients and organic products. And like Chipotle, it has earned a reputation for lines out the door at lunchtime. The Washington DC-based eatery has expanded to 31 locations ranging from California to New York since it opened in 2007, and it has the potential to grow even more, according Real Food Consulting President Ed Doyle said. But others are skeptical that Sweetgreen will stand out from the crowded field of salad chains. “We do not believe that this concept is enough of a difference to have a long and sustainable mass-market appeal,” restaurant consultant Jason Kaplan told The Post.
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like this concept would fly. Wingstop sells chicken wings — lots of them — and not much else. But its commitment to “fresh never faked wings” has paid off. The Dallas-based chain, which opened in 1994, has expanded to more than 700 locations coast-to-coast and went public last month in a sizzling IPO. Wingstop offers three types of fried wings drenched in 14 different sauces. Depending on who you ask, that simple menu is either its greatest strength or its biggest drawback. Mark Moeller of the New England Culinary Group argues its limited and unhealthy offerings — we’re talking fried chicken here, folks — will limit the chain’s appeal. But Steve Zagor, a dean at the Institute of Culinary Education, believes the company can spread its wings if it keeps tight controls and access to simple ingredients.
Shake Shack has already achieved near-mythical status in Manhattan. Famed restaurateur Danny Meyer started the business as a hot dog cart in Madison Square Park before opening his first burger stand in 2004. The New York City-based burger chain, which went public in January, boasts more than 70 restaurant, with plans to eventually open 400 in the US. Shake Shack bills itself as a “better burger,” meaning “all-natural” antibiotic- and hormone-free beef. The restaurant’s overall vibe is also more upscale than your basic burger joint. America’s ongoing love affair with burgers should help Shake Shack’s expansion, Howard Cannon, CEO of Restaurant Consultants of America, told The Post. That’s good because Shake Shack is under pressure to grow and justify its $2 billion market valuation.
Blaze is like the Burger King of the pizza world: Have it your way. The build-your-own pizza chain has only been around since 2012 but already has nearly 80 locations. It plans to have more than 400 locations by the end of 2020, according to the company. Customers get a piece of in-house made dough and customize their pie before it is placed on an open-flame oven. Blaze also serves salad, alcoholic beverages and their dessert — the s’more pie. Pizza is already a big moneymaker so Blaze has an opportunity to rise, Restaurant Consultant Ryan Smith said. “I think Blaze has all the right ingredients to make it a major player in the fast-casual game,” Ryan told The Post.
Think of Olive Garden before its endless breadsticks became such a bone of contention. Fazoli’s, a Kentucky-based fast-casual Italian chain, has jumped on the build-your-own craze with customized salad and pasta bowls. That effort has resulted in a boost in business over the past five years, with same-store sales increasing for 60 of the last 63 months, the company said. The chain — which has opened about 220 locations in 26 states — also gives off a family-friendly vibe rather than catering to just the millennial crowd.