Nation's Restaurant News

Fast-growing chains capture imagination through diversity

Fast-growing chains capture imagination through diversity

Nancy Kruse

Consumers are notoriously fickle. Just you think you’ve got a fix on what they truly want, it seems they’ve moved on to something else.

It’s lucky that there are some reliable indicators that help gauge the state of consumer demand, and primary among them is the “Second 100” list of chains analyzed in the July 26 issue of Nation’s Restaurant News. The listing charts the performance of dynamic second-tier chains, the 101st to 200th largest, all of which have achieved critical mass with sales in excess of $150 million. Their diversity demonstrates that the restaurant industry is a very big culinary tent.

Smoke gets in their eyes. It’s ironic that until recently barbecue, one of our favorite foods, has been immune to chain development. Conventional wisdom had it that the food was too regionally specific to have legs on a national basis, that the dry rub favored in Memphis never would fly in South Carolina, for example, where natives love their mustard sauce. Both Famous Dave’s and Smokey Bones have managed to put that misconception to rest with savvy, panregional menus that provide a cook’s tour of smoked specialties.

At Famous Dave’s Georgia chopped pork peacefully co-exists with Texas beef brisket, while Smokey Bones promotes St. Louis-style ribs alongside hand-pulled pork and Brunswick stew typical of the Deep South. Each extends the natural appeal of their barbecue offerings with distinctive signature items, like Smokey Bones’ bag of hot, fresh cinnamon-sugar doughnuts or Famous Dave’s Sweetwater catfish fingers appetizer.

Some like it hot; some like it cold. Second-tier chains provide a snapshot of varied and sometimes contradictory consumer preferences. Buffalo Wild Wings has generated a lot of heat by taking an incendiary snack born in a bar in Buffalo, N.Y., into 30 states as far ranging as North Dakota and North Carolina. Signature wings address our love affair with assertive flavors, and patron’s really can go for the bum with sauces that include spicy garlic, Caribbean jerk, Thai and hot BBQ.

At the other end of the temperature spectrum, Cold Stone Creamery has flourished with a menu based on sheer, sweet indulgence. Freshly made, super-premium ice cream with such flavors as amaretto, white chocolate and pecan praline is packed into fleshly baked waffle cones, and customers choose mix-ins from a dizzying array of fruits, nuts, candies and baked goods to create a unique product. Cold Stone Creamery is poised at the intersection of two powerful consumer trends: the desire for tasty treats and the demand for customization.

The focus is on freshness. Baja Fresh and Chipotle are situated at the top of the quick-casual Mexican category, differentiated from conventional quick-service chains on the basis of perceived fresher, made-to-order food, a concept that resonates with patrons who willingly endure longer wait times.

Both operations parlayed the popularity of handheld items into lifestyle-driven menus. Chipotle features free-range pork and vegetarian options accented with unexpected ingredients, like adobo and juniper berries. The menu at Baja Fresh provides a range of dietary options, including high-protein dishes and lighter, low-fat fare; nutritional information is provided, and flavor is enhanced by such authentic touches as salsa verde.

They offer the comforts of home. Despite the obvious appeal of ethnic chains, comfort food remains a powerful draw for lots of customers. Mimi’s Cafe serves up an extensive menu that combines classics like pan-roasted garlic chicken with contemporary fare like Thai peanut chicken stir-fry. Mimi’s culinary roots are in Louisiana, and many items reflect a Big Easy influence, like pasta jambalaya and Cajun popcorn shrimp.

By contrast, Culver’s built a business on what might be described as Snow Belt soul food. The Wisconsin-based chain’s calling card is frozen custard, a gastronomic delight that has failed inexplicably to catch fire outside the Midwest. The signature sandwich is the ButterBurger, which is served on a lightly buttered toasted bun. Other sandwiches include Norwegian cod fillet and pork tenderloin, options that are attractive to a heartland audience and likely to travel well as the chain expands.

And even if your mama wasn’t Italian, it seems fair to say that our collective definition of comfort food has expanded to include stick-to-your-ribs Italian favorites like those featured at Johnny Carino’s, where standards like chicken Parmigiana and 12-layer lasagna share the menu with Johnny’s skilletini, an Italian version of a fajita that’s served in a sizzling skillet.

They offer a safe escape. Bahama Breeze has capitalized on our fascination with exotic fare by creating a menu that does a fine job of introducing consumers to the delights of Latin cuisine. Familiar calamari is topped with sofrito, and chicken wings get a jolt of Jamaican jerk seasoning.

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