The Future of Automation in Foodservice–Ready or not, here it comes!

Automate or die? We’re not quite there yet, but the ability to supplement or replace human labor with automated solutions is fast becoming a lifeline for many foodservice operators. And really, while Jetson-Esque robots taking orders, cooking, and delivering meals may not come to a restaurant near you anytime soon (a few exceptions aside), automated solutions of one type or another are already all around us.fes1805 automation opener

From the nation’s largest global brands to progressive healthcare companies, business and industry (B&I) operations and upstart tech-driven chains, the shift of functions from humans to machines confirms that the automation genie is out of the bottle. Applications such as front-of-the-house kiosks and the ability for customers to place orders directly and pay via mobile devices automate processes that have traditionally involved several steps and personal interaction with and among staff. Momentum is building to include sophisticated robotics and next-gen, last-mile solutions — leveraging technology to meet consumer demands for speed and anywhere, anytime access to high-quality foodservice.

Robots working alongside human line cooks and in the front of the house? Restaurant meals delivered by drones, robots, and self-driving cars? Chatbots communicating with guests online? Check, check and check. Early adopters continue to test all of the above and more, bringing into focus what promises to be a significantly more automated future for many segments of the industry.

Consider recent moves made by some leading restaurant brands:

Domino’s customers could soon get pizza delivery without any human interaction. Already a leader in automated and mobile ordering and payment technologies, the company is now partnering with Ford to test self-driving cars for delivery. Photo courtesy of Domino’s

Shake Shack opened a kiosk-only, completely cashless unit at Astor Place in New York City. Customers place and pay for all orders via touch-screen kiosks or mobile apps. Front-of-the-house staffers called “Hospitality Champs” assist where necessary. According to CEO Randy Garutti, the test unit represents an evolving business model for the future and the chain’s dedication to digital innovation. By the end of 2017, McDonald’s had installed digital ordering/payment kiosks in 3,000 U.S. units as part of its new Experience of the Future strategy. In the company’s fourth-quarter 2017 earnings call in late January, President and CEO Steve Easterbrook said the self-order technology would be installed in another 4,000 units this year. McDonald’s has also rolled out mobile app orders and payments in more than 20,000 units worldwide, offering curbside, in-store or drive-thru pickup options. The burger giant continues to roll out digital menus that allow the chain to analyze big data and self-adjust based on time of day or weather, automatically highlighting items that appeal on hot or cold days, respectively. Dunkin’ Donuts opened a new concept store in Quincy, Mass., in January with a dedicated drive-thru for orders placed and paid for using the DD Perks app. Inside, kiosks replace or supplement human order takers/cashiers. Domino’s Pizza offers app ordering and payment systems across every platform and continues to test an array of pioneering automation technologies. Last year the chain introduced a virtual assistant that uses conversational artificial intelligence (AI) on its mobile app to assist with virtual online ordering and other customer service functions. The assistant can hold digital conversations with customers about menus, ingredients, store locations, and operating hours. The company also rolled out the ability to order from the full menu via Facebook Messenger and Amazon Echo and is working to automate delivery by testing drones, six-wheeled robotic carts, and self-driving cars.


These companies are far from alone. Virtually every major restaurant concept and noncommercial operation of any size throughout the industry continues to make, or gear up to make, the same or similar moves toward greater automation.


Now next-gen concepts are emerging that bake in automation from the start. For example, Café X is a fully automated, cashless specialty coffee bar brand that has grown to a trio of San Francisco locations over the past 18 months. Encased in acrylic and fronted by touch-screen tablets on which customers place orders and pay — if they haven’t already done so on their phones — the kiosks house automatic coffee machines capable of brewing Americanos, espressos, cappuccinos, cortados, lattes, and flat whites with customers’ choice of locally roasted beans and milk types. Its barista, an industrial-style robotic arm, performs a set of predefined motions, such as pushing buttons, moving a cup from under the milk dispenser to the syrup dispenser, and delivering a finished beverage to a window for pickup. Depending on drink complexity, it can produce an average of two drinks per minute. The concept includes human staffers to help with the ordering process, educate customers about menu items and ingredients, and keep the cafe stocked.


Zume Pizza, also in northern California, employs pizza-making robots — named Pepe, Giorgio, Marta, Bruno, and Vincenzo — that handle repetitive, low-skill tasks such as dough pressing (five times faster than a human can and in perfect shapes), sauce spreading (exact amount every time) and placing pizzas into Zume’s 800-degree ovens (no injuries) in the company’s central production facility in Mountain View. Predictive technology guides each day’s production, indicating both volume and types of pizzas that will likely satisfy demand. Customers order online or via mobile app, and their pizzas finish cooking in transit in specially designed delivery vehicles, each fitted with dozens of automated, smart pizza ovens. The robotics-assisted production, delivery-only model, and on-route cooking combine to cut costs, speed service, and free up the startups’ 120 or so human employees, all of which are full-time, with benefits, to focus on more creative, intuitive, and skilled tasks. Source: Foodservice Equipment & Supplies Magazine


What does the Future hold for Food and Beverage?

Over the past few months, COVID-19 has had a significant impact on how we think and behave when it comes to food and beverage (F&B). When lockdowns were implemented in countries around the world, non-essential retailers were closed, dining-in was prohibited, and supply chains were tested. As a result, buying behaviors and attitudes have changed and F&B retailers are having to respond rapidly. Those that can act quickly will be able to emerge triumphant past the crisis, with many new strategies remaining relevant even after the pandemic.


As countries are opening, a common question among businesses is ‘what next?’ Governments around the world are trialing different measures to reopen the market while trying to minimize the likelihood of a second wave of mass infections. Businesses are on one hand rapidly trying to adapt to the latest governmental policies, and on the other, thinking about how they should change to cater to a marketplace that in some ways looks very different. We’ll explore 3 key trends, with our thoughts on what is likely to stay post-COVID when it comes to F&B:


Consumer behavioral changes

Business adaptability

Unfulfilled consumer needs

‘Stay home projects’: behavioral and purchasing patterns arising out of having to eat at home

Short term changes

While purchases of luxury products have largely decreased during the pandemic, there was a sharp rise in everyday products. With the closure of physical stores, and restaurants doing takeaway only, more people embarked on different ‘stay home projects’, experimenting with homemade recipes.


According to social listening data from Circus Social, people in Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia ended up making more homemade snacks during this period. In China, the sale of egg whisks on online retailer Tmall increased five-fold year on year. In Singapore, essential baking ingredients such as yeast and baking soda were wiped off the shelves in most supermarkets during the first month of the Circuit Breaker, and many consumers looking for alternatives online. This shift has had a huge impact on supermarkets and grocery retailers, forcing them to look for alternative sources of supply and diversifying their supply chain strategy.


The surge in interest in ‘stay home projects’ has also led to a dramatic increase in the viewership of inspiration channels as well as recipe searches, with Instagram-worthy home café recipes trending on social media shortly after they were posted. This presented opportunities for brands to think about showcasing their products through strategic product placements on these channels. This may not be a novel strategy, but it has become highly relevant given the larger share of eyeballs on these channels during this period. In addition, we see F&B brands offering home cooking meal kits, riding on the wave of ‘stay home projects’ and engaging with partners to showcase the ease of using these meal kits online.


Long term trends

We believe that many of these trends will persist even after lockdown. More people, including newbies in the kitchen, have found a love for cooking and baking, while homecooked meals have also brought many families closer together. With the increased appreciation towards ‘home projects’, we are expecting more people to cook at home than in pre-COVID times.


Improving e-commerce channels and offline-to-online services will be also important to meet the needs of consumers in the future. F&B retailers will need to up their e-commerce game. While brick and mortar stores will remain relevant in the post-pandemic world, this period has shown the importance of having a strong e-commerce presence and robust supply chain. Consumers will become more used to shopping for groceries online, especially for products that they cannot typically find in brick-and-mortar stores. If F&B brands want to extend their reach to a wider audience through e-commerce, the time to do so is now.


Subway Shifts U.S. Development Plans

Subway is pushing a multi-year transformation journey, and the next step is a shift in U.S. development strategy.

The world’s largest sandwich chain announced Thursday that instead of being a development-focused organization, it will become experience-oriented, meaning a streamlined footprint, remodeled restaurants, and a transition to multi-unit operators.

“Subway was built with an expansion mindset that helped us become one of the world’s largest quick-service restaurant brands,” Steve Rafferty, senior vice president of development, said in a statement. “Today, we are strategically focused on the quality of our restaurants versus quantity and looking to franchise restaurants to sophisticated, multi-unit owners that can help ensure we deliver a consistent, high-quality guest experience.”

The brand has spent the past several years downsizing its footprint in the U.S. Subway, a 100 percent franchised concept, finished 2021 with 21,147 stores domestically, a net decrease of 3,650 units compared to 2019. It’s still by far the largest restaurant chain in the U.S. in terms of restaurants, followed by Starbucks and McDonald’s.

To optimize growth, Subway is partnering with franchisees and using a data-driven approach to ensure stores align with market-specific needs and are in the right locations and format—including drive-thru and nontraditional.

At the same time, the brand is continuing to remodel outlets with its “Fresh Forward” design, which includes LED lighting, new floor coverings, containers, tables, colors, and chairs. To date, nearly 9,000 units have committed to the remodeling program. Subway will improve the format and layout as time goes on to better meet customers’ needs, like adding prep and pickup areas dedicated to digital orders.

Additionally, to enhance its franchisee profile, the company is actively inviting multi-unit restaurateurs to buy out existing operators who want to retire or sell.

“Historically, Subway has been a system of primarily single-restaurant operators,” Rafferty said. “These operators—often first-time business owners and budding entrepreneurs—have always been integral to our growth strategy, and they will continue to be a critical part of our brand strength. At the same time, to ensure we remain competitive for years to come, we’re scaling up with high-caliber multi-unit franchisees, who bring operating expertise, development capabilities, and capital.”

The new development strategy comes nearly a year after the fast-food brand launched Eat Fresh Refresh, the largest menu update in its history. More than 20 upgrades—11 new and improved ingredients, six new or returning sandwiches, and four revamped signature sandwiches—hit outlets nationwide in July 2021.

Thanks to that rollout, Subway surpassed its 2021 sales projections by almost $1.4 billion and reached its highest AUV since 2014. Three-fourths of the system, or more than 15,000 locations, experienced a 7.5 percent rise in same-store sales in 2021 compared to 2019. In Q1 2022, the same number of stores saw comps increase 8.2 percent versus three years ago.

Outside of the U.S., expansion has accelerated. In the past 10 months, Subway has inked eight master franchise agreements for nearly 5,000 units across Asia Pacific, Europe, Middle East and Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. This includes a deal with private equity firm Everstone Group to open more than 2,000 locations across South Asia, which Subway called one of the “largest master franchise agreements in quick-service restaurant history.”   — Source: QSR.

Automation offers promise to ease labor burden and free workers to focus on customers . . . .

Jack in the Box’s staffing challenges continue to hold back operating hours in Q2

Jack in the Box Inc. continued to struggle with labor issues in the second quarter, with about half of company-owned unit dining rooms remaining closed because of staffing issues, the company said Thursday.

A “meaningful number” of restaurants were operating at reduced hours during the April 17-ended quarter, but CEO Darin Harris said efforts are underway to improve hiring and retention, including wage hikes in select markets — especially to restore staffing levels for the late-night daypart, which he said the brand has potential to dominate once they can fully execute.

Jack in the Box’s same-store sales during the quarter dipped 0.8% systemwide, with declines in traffic offset by increases in average check, largely as a result of menu price hikes. The restaurants were also still seeing the negative impact of Omicron and tougher comparisons with last year when consumers were supported by stimulus checks.

But labor was the challenge more under company control, and Harris said the chain is seeing positive results from investments in recruiting and retention at company units, looking at what workers value to improve messaging, and using tactics like direct mail and referrals. In the mostly company-owned Los Angeles market, for example, he said units saw a 7% increase in staffing and are nearly at pre-pandemic levels.

San Diego-based Jack in the Box Inc.’s acquisition of the Del Taco chain was completed during the quarter, bringing that brand’s 599 company and franchised restaurants into the fold with Jack in the Box’s 2,207 units. The marriage is expected to bring beneficial synergies, particularly related to the supply chain, Harris said.

“With the addition of Del Taco, we are now a bigger, stronger company, well-positioned to take share and drive significant innovation, growth, and shareholder value,” he said.

Del Taco’s systemwide same-store sales increased 2.5% during the quarter, with sales boosted by the brand’s 20 under $2 value platform and strong limited-time offer performance, as well as a higher average ticket raised by menu price increases.

“Industry winners will find ways to maintain traffic while raising the price in other areas of the menu, and I believe this value initiative hits the mark,” Harris said of Del Taco’s barbell strategy of mixing value and more-premium offerings.

Harris said both brands have pricing power, and menu prices will likely go up further in the second half of the year.

Jack in the Box will continue its “hook-and-build” strategy of using more value-priced menu options to draw customers in, then upselling with attractive add-ons to build the ticket.

Harris also said a number of value-focused menu offerings are coming in 2023. “We have more new menu items on the testing counter than we’ve seen since this new management team started,” he said.

During the quarter, Jack in the Box also saw positive results from a reimaging package officially launched in the second quarter that included store enhancements, new packaging, and uniforms.

“It is imperative we get our current base of restaurants to a new image, which not only impacts restaurant performance but also helps attract franchisees to grow the brand in the future,” said Harris.

The company has a reimage tenant improvement program, and 12 units are in the design and permitting stage for the refresh, with another 136 franchised restaurants approved for upcoming projects.

Harris pointed to a company unit in Yuma, Ariz., for example, where the size of the parking area was doubled, the layout was reconfigured for better traffic circulation, and a wide-lane drive-thru was added, alongside a remodel of the dine-in area. Early results indicate a 25% lift in same-store sales, exceeding $100,000 in weekly sales driven by transactions, he said.

Jack in the Box has also been testing the use of automation, including cheese pumps, automated shake machine cleaning, and tests with Miso’s Flippy 2 (frying) and Sippy (for drink prep) robots, as well as looking for ways to simplify the process of building menu items to improve speed.

Jack in the Box ended the quarter with a net decrease of one restaurant — the company opened five units but closed six. But Harris said the system was on pace to reach its goal of 4% unit growth by 2025. The brand has 54 signed franchise agreements for a total of 218 restaurants, of which 12 have opened.

Del Taco also had a net decrease of one restaurant, with one opening and two closures.

Revenues for the quarter were $322 million, compared with $257 million a year ago, including partial-quarter results for Del Taco starting with the close of acquisition on March 8.

Net income was $7.8 million, or 37 cents per share, for the quarter, compared with $35 million, or $1.58 per share, a year ago. – Source: NRN.

Jack in the Box explains why it plans to acquire another Mexican chain

Company officials say it’s a better match with Del Taco than with the previous partner Qdoba Mexican Eats

Jack in the Box sold the Qdoba Mexican Eats chain in 2018 after owning it for about 15 years without great success. So why the heck would the company buy yet another Mexican brand?

That was the (somewhat paraphrased) first question from a Wall Street analyst after Jack in the Box Inc. announced an agreement to acquire rival brand Del Taco for about $575 million on Monday. The deal is expected to close in the first quarter of 2022 and is subject to shareholder and other regulatory approvals.

Darin Harris, Jack in the Box Inc. CEO, along with Chief Financial Officer Tim Mullany laid out a number of reasons why the Jack/Del Taco marriage is strategically and financially compelling.

Harris described both Jack in the Box and Del Taco as “scrappy, innovative, challenger brands” with the right operational and cultural fit. They both have a long history. San Diego-based Jack in the Box was founded in 1951, and neighboring Lake Forest, Calif.-based Del Taco in 1964. Del Taco is the nation’s second-largest Mexican QSR chain — though No. 1 Taco Bell has little to fear.

Here are the proposed benefits:

It’s a same-segment match: Qdoba is really a fast-casual brand, while Del Taco is solidly in the quick-service category, said Harris. Almost all of Del Taco’s 603 restaurants have drive-thrus, for example, as do about 90% of Jack in the Box’s 2,200 locations.

Simple synergies: Jack in the Box expects synergies between the two QSR brands to result in $15 million in savings by the end of fiscal 2023, and some of that will come from procurement and supply chain benefits. Menu-wise, Jack in the Box knows a thing or two about “legendary” tacos, Harris noted. But, unlike Qdoba, Del Taco also knows a thing or two about burgers and fries. Like Jack in the Box, Del Taco does well as a “late snack” brand. The increased scale will improve margin opportunities for both brands, Harris said.

Geographic familiarity: The combined chains operate with similar footprints geographically — mostly in the West but with national potential. That means franchise operators are familiar with the markets and the customer profiles. Jack in the Box is in states like Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and North Carolina, where Del Taco has no presence, for example. But Del Taco is in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Michigan, where Jack in the Box has yet to open.

Franchisee cross-pollination: Jack in the Box is mostly franchise-operated and Del Taco is about 50/50 franchise-to-company owned. Harris said the company is open to refranchising, providing opportunities for the franchise base on both sides to add to their portfolios.

Accelerated growth: Earlier this year, Harris pledged to increase system units by 4% annually by 2025. When that goal was introduced, it was assumed Harris meant just Jack in the Box, but on Monday he said that the growth plan includes both brands, putting the goal much more in reach. Together, the two brands will total 2,800 units spanning 25 states (and Guam) and generate an estimated $5 billion in systemwide sales.

Building digital muscle: Both Jack in the Box and Del Taco could do more to build digital sales, and there’s power in collaboration, said Harris.

Del Taco launched its first loyalty program in September, and earlier this year unveiled a new store prototype with delivery pickup areas and double drive-through lanes for mobile orders. Jack in the Box also debuted its new off-premises-only MK12 prototype with a modular design that allows franchisees to open drive-thru-only restaurants, with a separate lane for online orders or delivery pickup.

Wall Street analysts also mulled the Del Taco v. Qdoba partnership in reports on Monday.

Eric Gonzalez, a research analyst with KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc., said Jack in the Box bought Qdoba in 2003 as a growth vehicle to supplement what was then a mature brand.

“In purchasing Del Taco, the company is opportunistically purchasing a well-regarded but underappreciated regional quick-service chain with similar brand attributes, a heavy off-premise mix, and solid fundamentals/unit growth prospects at a time when the foundation for Jack in Box’s accelerated growth has already been set.”

Some, however, like David Tarantino, senior research analyst with Baird, said they would have preferred to see Jack in the Box stay focused.

“We would have preferred to see management continue to focus solely on growing the Jack in the Box brand rather than attempting to integrate and position a second business (which has a higher mix of company-operated locations) for long-term growth,” Tarantino wrote Monday.

Meanwhile, across the industry, restaurant companies are facing labor and inflationary pressures that are driving them to seek efficiencies. Some are watching the strategies of multi-concept operators like Inspire Brands, Restaurant Brands International, Panera Brands, and (the particularly acquisition-happy) Fat Brands grow their portfolios, scale, and purchasing power.

When asked if Jack in the Box planned more acquisitions to create more of a platform company, Harris said the quick-service operator plans to focus on digesting this merger for now — though he didn’t rule out future “programmatic M&A” if it creates shareholder value. – Source: NRN.

After spending seven years in prison for drug manufacturing, Allyssa was out on parole. The high school graduate made $120 a week at a part-time job. But rent and utilities were $400 a month, and she often missed work due to court-ordered appointments . . . .

Delaware Restaurants Launch New Re-Entry Program

Allyssa attempted to sell jewelry to a pawn shop, but they turned her down. She finally took out a payday loan with high interest. Failing to meet the conditions of her parole, she returned to prison.

“Allyssa” was a hypothetical character assumed by Lori Ewald at a recent reentry simulation on the Widener University Delaware Law School campus.

“Holy cow, this was a powerful exercise,” said Ewald, marketing manager for High Five Hospitality. “There is no doubt that I have a new appreciation for how difficult reentry into reality is.”

The event was organized by Project New Start, which helps people transition out of state and federal incarceration, and the Delaware Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (DRAEF), which is recruiting employers for its Hospitality Opportunities for People (Re)Entering Society (HOPES) program.

The simulation underscores the challenges individuals face when returning to their communities.

“It is impactful. It is meaningful, and it is incredibly eye-opening for all parties involved,” said Raelynn Grogan, senior director of the DRAEF.

HOPES is designed to ease the transition. But it could also benefit the restaurant industry, which as of May had 1.4 million job openings, according to the National Restaurant Association.

A proving ground

Delaware is one of four states that the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation selected for the $4 million HOPES program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. The others are Michigan, Ohio, and Texas while existing programs run in Chicago, Boston, Richmond, and Farmville, Va.

In part, Delaware made the list because of its small, manageable size and the existing collaboration between state and nonprofit agencies. Its diverse population also makes it a petri dish for a new project, Grogan said.

The DRAEF is currently working with education supervisors and culinary arts educators to recruit candidates at two correctional facilities: the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center and Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution.

There are 15 enrolled in the program, and more than 35 have expressed an interest, Grogan said. The goal is to reach 80 by December 2023.

Candidates, who must be 18 or older and within 20 to 180 days of release, will learn foodservice and hospitality skills and secure at least one industry credential, such as a ServSafe certification. The “students” will also be paired with a case manager.

The Food Bank of Delaware, which has an existing culinary training program, and Project New Start are the DRAEF’s community partners.

Attendees at the reentry simulation have no doubt that guidance is needed. During the playacting period, they had to complete certain tasks within a time limit. A week equaled 15 minutes.

Many realized too late that they needed a state-issued ID to gain benefits, and the line for that service grew so long that people spent the first “week” waiting. They didn’t have time to go to work or attend AA meetings as required, and the probation officer that circled the room did not tolerate excuses.

A win-win initiative

Employment is an important part of the program for individuals. But it’s also a benefit for participating employers, including High 5 Hospitality, which operates Buffalo Wild Wings, Jersey Mike’s, and other franchises around Delaware.

“There are certainly big opportunities to assist these folks, so they don’t return to prison,” Ewald said. “We at High 5 Hospitality are eager to try and help.”

DRAEF’s HOPES program has 12 enrolled hospitality groups with a total of about 45 statewide locations. The benefits are clear. Restaurants were hit hard financially during the pandemic and now need workers. HOPES participants are receiving training at no cost to the employer.

Plus, people from all walks of life have long been welcome in the industry. The late James Beard honoree Matt Haley was in prison before starting SoDel Concepts.

DRAEF, which provides resources and professional development programs to employers, will track the participants for a year.

HOPES is not the only education program that DRAEF has launched in the state. The Restaurant Youth Registered Apprenticeship initiative is for people ages 17 to 24, who can apprentice as a line cook, kitchen manager or restaurant manager. The Hospitality Sector Registered Apprenticeship is for adults ages 24 on the same career paths. The Restaurant Ready Program for those 16 and up focuses on soft-skill core competencies.

The DRAEF also handles the state’s ProStart culinary curriculum in participating high schools. This year, the Caesar Rodney High School team earned first place in the national culinary competition in Washington, D.C. It is the first win for a Delaware team at the national level. – Source: Delaware Business Times.

Program participant plans future in law enforcement, and maybe as a restaurant owner.

College Student Has High HOPES after Start at Cheesecake Factory

Schofield is about to graduate from college and plans to become a police detective or probation officer. She’d also like to own a restaurant, too.

Shavonne Schofield believes patience is a virtue.

Patience can help us achieve our goals and avoid making bad decisions. That’s the lesson she’s learned, and thanks to it, she’s finding out that now is finally her time to grow.

At 24, the Boston native and participant in Hospitality Opportunities for People (Re)Entering Society(Opens in a new window) (HOPES), is about to graduate from college and begin the next phase of her journey—perhaps as a police detective or probation officer.

She’d like to own a restaurant someday, too.

Discovering HOPES

HOPES, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation program developed in partnership with several community-based organizations, correctional departments, and state restaurant associations, trains adults 18 years or older(Opens in a new window) who are or were justice-system involved to find jobs and potentially establish careers at restaurants and other foodservice businesses.
In 2019, Schofield found herself aging out of the foster care system. She was attending Bridgewater State University but needed a job and a place to live.

Ryan Brennan, a case manager at Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), introduced her to HOPES and helped her navigate the training and subsequent job interview she needed to begin work as a host at the local Cheesecake Factory restaurant. With the job, and a voucher for an apartment, HOPES offered her a lifeline, and she grabbed it.

“I’ve been in college for about six years now, working on my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice,” she says. “I’d been through hardships and was looking for a job. I needed to get out on my own and rent an apartment. Then the pandemic happened, and finding that job was really hard. Ryan not only helped with that but also with resources for housing. He’s been a great support.” – Source: National Restaurant Association.

With his new cookbook ‘Green Fire,’ the ‘Chef’s Table’ star and live-fire legend turn over a new leaf . . . .

Francis Mallmann Is Grilling Vegetables Now

If you possess a mental picture of Francis Mallmann, especially from his hagiographic Chef’s Table episode, it’s likely of the Argentine chef emerging, Dionysian, from a woodsmoke haze, bearing the reverently-charred remains of a whole beast, bird, or fish to a laden table. The smoke and showmanship haven’t dissipated, but he would now like for you to roll back that footage and slightly re-imagine it. Still fire, still swagger, but now in a jaunty pink beret, bearing eggplants, pumpkins, zucchini, and fruit. It’s passion — his stock in trade — but it’s also something of atonement for the excesses of his generation. Mallmann’s newest book, Green Fire, which he wrote with Peter Kaminsky, is an exploration of the powerful alchemy of flame, fruit, herbs, and vegetables, and what he hopes will be a course correction for the climate and culture.

The 66-year-old Mallmann isn’t known for his restraint in food, festivity, or expressing his feelings about either. Asked about what fledgling grillers should serve to guests, he says, in classic Mallmann fashion, “Tenderness is better than the passion at the beginning. As in lovemaking, you start with tenderness. Then you can go other ways, but it’s exactly the same thing, cooking. You have to start understanding your mate, which is the fruit. So you have to look and see what’s happening to them. So you can’t start with a big fire; that would be a disaster.” This kind of talk may either stoke or cool your ardor, but under the choke and swagger of it is some world-class live-fire cooking advice, stoked by a mission to un-scorch the earth.

A few catalysts sparked the change. For the better part of a decade, Mallmann has been receiving messages via social media from younger people who admire his elemental approach to cooking but encourage him to delve more deeply into plant-based ingredients. During a recent visit to the Food & Wine offices in New York City, he explained, “Young people are saying master chef, we love your work, so inspiring to see your fires — by the way we are vegan or vegetarian, but we still like it.”

The “owing” is something that had been smoldering in Mallmann’s psyche in recent years as he ruminated on the legacy of hippies-turned-capitalists. “Something is happening with this young generation. They’re holding hands all around the world as we did with the hippie movement. I was 13, 14, then,” he recalled. “It was very strong for me. I was a child in Patagonia but still, we had this feeling all around the world that we had a common cause. Now, I feel the same thing.”

That approach did the trick; it was not just the meat of the message that swayed him, but the tone in which it was conveyed. “It started really, out of their elegance and education of how they manifested themselves to me without criticizing what I did, but sort of saying that they liked it,” Mallmann said. “I thought it was so nice and I got so many of those messages. I thought, well, I owe these young people something and I decided to do the book.”

It’s a sharp turn from his previous trajectory. He continued, “We were raised to collect properties and paintings, and these guys, they have as many ambitions as we had, but it’s not about owning things. They want a better world. And I think that’s very beautiful.”

I love meat, but we have to change.


This incarnation of said beauty, for him, would be the restoration of a planet eroded by humankind’s appetites. “We are all aware that we have destroyed the oceans. I think it’s easier to get rid of the cows than of the oceans, and it’s huge damage. Very, very bad. So that has to change,” Mallmann said. “In the near future, we will be eating less fish and less meat. The traceability of both, even chickens and birds, would be very important. Where do they come from? How have they been fed? Did they use antibiotics or not? That will take us to a corridor, an edge where the market would be smaller. I love meat but we have to change. There’s no way out: We have to change.”

This may seem like a seismic shift for a chef who — at least in his media portrayals — has seemed like an unapologetic avatar of fleshly pleasures, but his love of herbs, fruits, and vegetables is not just recently kindled. As a child, Mallmann’s neighbor tended to his garden for what seemed like day and night. Patagonia, he notes, is very remote, and their chats near the trees and beds seemed like a perfectly pleasant way to pass the time. But when he moved out on his own, he felt that tug back to the earth.

“I decided to make a very small garden,” Mallmann said. “I planted some carrots. I remember some parsley and spring onions. I would tend to it before work.” Then he moved to Paris, whereas a young chef, he saw a reverence for vegetables he’d never witnessed before. Still, this pursuit still didn’t fully take root until he was back on his native soil.

“I lived [in Paris] for quite a while and I understood many new things about vegetables, but still they were like a garnish. I think that my understanding of vegetables truly came after I was 40, after being a chef for 20 years. It’s quite incredible,” Mallman marveled. “My friendship with eggplant, with fennel, with many of the vegetables that I really started trying to understand, took me many years. So it has been a long path.”

Having traveled this far, Mallmann hopes to lead others where he’s gone. Though his elaborate blazes are the stuff of screen, page, and culinary tourist legend, he is shockingly not precious about the way or vessel in which they’re constructed. “You can make a fire on the floor. It can be inside of a Weber kettle. It can be in the grill. It can be in the forest,” he said. “But basically the success of cooking with fire is patience and your intuition to understand what fire does to your food. It’s a process, it’s a craft. You can read my books, but you will not learn it. You have to practice it. You have to go stand, watch a fire, and understand it. There’s no way out. I can give you advice but I can’t give you a shock or an injection of fire knowledge.”

He’s definitely short-selling the book’s tremendous utility here, but what he can do is tell you how to cook an eggplant — a perfect starter vegetable for anyone who wants to walk with him along the fire path. To Mallmann, it’s not just a foolproof technique; it’s an exercise in minding the fire. “Throw the whole eggplant on the coals or even in the flame,” he advised. “Be there so they don’t burn completely. Then you flip it and you see that it starts crackling. What I like to do is take them out of the fire when they’re sort of slightly burned and the peel is falling off and put them in a container with a cover on for 15 minutes. The heat and the humidity of the eggplant finish the peeling of it and it finishes cooking.”

You’re not done yet, said Mallmann. “Then you open it, you scrape with your hands really, not with water or anything, all the little bits of black, you can keep some, and then you can do many different things with it: a puree, to just smashing them a bit.”

But for Mallmann, though appealing recipes abound for pumpkins, potatoes, artichokes, tomatoes, drinks, desserts, and more, it’s the book’s Ratatouille Tian and Churrasco recipe that is the greatest manifestation of this almost phoenix-like resurrection he wishes for the bounty of the planet. “It’s got garlic and parsley, and of course, fresh breadcrumbs outside. And then you have the most incredible ratatouille, which I like to cook for a very, very long time so it’s slightly burnt on the top,” he said.

“I cut it very thin. I put them in many layers and I cook them for two hours. The eggplant and the tomato and zucchini, they all become great friends in that recipe of ratatouille, but it’s the eggplant that stands out as the most elegant ingredient.”

Like Mallmann himself, it rises from the ashes, transformed. It feeds, it pleases. It just, as he said, takes some patience. – Source: Food and Wine.

Tate & Lyle on May 26 held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of a new Customer Innovation and Collaboration Centre in Santiago . . . .

Tate & Lyle Continues Growth Strategy in Latin America

The new center includes a kitchen, application laboratory, and rapid prototyping capabilities and will allow the company’s food scientists to work with customers in the Latin America region to address growing demands for solutions that help reduce sugar, fat, and calories, and add fiber, in consumer products, Tate & Lyle said.

“We are excited to open a new Customer Innovation and Collaboration Centre in Chile as part of our growth strategy in Latin America,” said Oswaldo Nardinelli, senior vice president and general manager for Latin America at Tate & Lyle. “Manufacturers are increasingly looking to agile and expert partners like Tate & Lyle to help them meet growing consumer demand for great tasting food and beverages that support balanced diets and lifestyles. Tate & Lyle has been in Chile for over 15 years, and it’s a very important market for us. The new center in Santiago will be part of our integrated network of centers across Latin America, including in Brazil and Mexico.” – Source: Food Business News.

The Chain Believes it can open 75 – 100 restaurants in the years to come . . . .

Meet Outback’s New Growth Driver

Outback didn’t need the pandemic to realize the importance of a new prototype.

Ideation on a new store design began in 2019. Brand President Brett Patterson explains that as Outback thought about future growth, it wanted to make sure it had a more streamlined vessel that could resonate in smaller markets—that was the big growth opportunity in the next five to 10 years.

The result is a nearly 5,000-square-foot NextGen design, down from the roughly 6,000-square-foot size of typical Outback restaurants. The reduction was accomplished by redesigning the kitchen and optimizing the dining room, without impacting the number of tables. The prototype sits roughly 187 guests.

Thus far four have opened in Steele Creek, North Carolina; Madison, Alabama; Fort Worth, Texas; and Polaris, Ohio. Outback believes it has room to open 75-100 of these in the coming years. The chain ended Q1 with 692 U.S. outlets (562 company-owned and 130 franchised).

“The one thing about these four restaurants, it’s really putting our best foot forward to what the future will look like for Outback,” Patterson says.

Although the journey began pre-COVID, the pandemic did have its influences, most notably a room dedicated to off-premises orders tacked on to the side of the building. Patterson notes Outback has had a “pretty robust” off-premises business for a number of years and that curbside takeaway has been in place since the early 90s. But it was never to the point of a specific section being needed inside the store.

The move makes sense, considering off-premises mixed 26 percent Q1, which is more than double pre-pandemic levels. Of that amount, 12 percent comes from third-party delivery. Almost 80 percent of off-premises sales in the first quarter came via digital channels, fueled by a new online ordering system and mobile app that has more than 1.8 million downloads.

The off-premises room will allow for more volume through the curbside pickup side door and reduce interference with day-to-day operations, Patterson says.

“In our legacy locations, where they were all designed for what we know to be traditional casual-dining restaurants and full sit-down restaurants, you handle takeout through the bartender, like any other concept, or we would have that side door access with the curbside. But your kitchen layout was still the same, your dining room layout was the same, and you had a little area carved out for that off-premise piece. So it’s considerably different now with that [dedicated] space.”

Patterson’s heard glowing reviews from managers and hourly employees. In the front of the house, one is able to see every table from any point in the restaurant. The prototype also leverages a team service model in which servers use tablets to take orders instead of moving back and forth to a POS terminal.

The system requires fewer bodies, meaning one person is able to handle up to six tables, instead of three to four. That also means more tips and better recruitment and retention pitches in a tighter labor market. Front-of-house team members have new apparel, as well.

In the back of house, the NextGen design has all of Outback’s new cooking technology, including clamshell grills, a combi oven, and a kitchen display system.

For consumers, the interior is reimagined to be “vibrant, fun, and inviting,” including a chandelier that looks like the Southern Cross constellation and a graffiti mural inspired by Australian surf culture and the Sydney Harbor Bridge—the largest steel arch bridge in the world.

The new restaurants also feature artwork specific to their market, fulfilling Outback’s goal to set itself apart from the typical chain restaurant and be a fabric of the community.

“I will tell you from a consumer standpoint, we’re just getting rave reviews again because folks have been part of our journey for 34 years, right?” Patterson says. “They’ve got a lot of brand awareness, they’ve got reverence for the brand, and so I think they get excited when they see what the future of Outback looks like.”

Culinary changes were implemented, as well, with a more steak-forward menu. For instance, there’s the Smoked Porterhouse, which is a steak infused with hickory smoke served on a wood platter with a dome over top. Brussel sprouts were also added to the menu.

“There are some items on the menu that are really more forward and where we’re thinking we’re going with the menu,” Patterson says.

Each of the four new stores, which cost 20 percent less to construct, were ground-up builds and freestanding. In the future, Outback will work on a prototype specifically for an inline location. Patterson isn’t able to be overly specific about the length of time it takes to open a prototype because of the noise surrounding the supply chain, but there’s the confidence that Outback can shed two to three weeks off the timeline as compared to a legacy unit.

The brand believes the prototype will work in any area, but the key to reaching its 75-100 goal will be entering secondary markets. Most of the expansion will come in the South where the chain has the most brand awareness, including states like South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.

The steakhouse will continue to open larger units that are already in the pipeline, but after that, the slimmer prototype will be the primary growth driver. At the same time, the chain is in the midst of a remodel program and will implement some of the latest elements into its legacy stores.

“Just now emerging from the pandemic and things have slowed down, but yeah, we are aggressively pursuing that goal to get 75-100 additional restaurants,” Patterson says. – Source: FSR.

Co-founder Mychel “Snoop” Dillard envisions 10 – 15 locations in the next two years . . . .

Escobar Looks to Franchise as Night Club Concept

Atlanta’s Escobar Restaurant & Tapas Lounge is for the 25 and older crowd, co-founder Mychel “Snoop” Dillard says. The hardworking urban professionals and entrepreneurs.

But it’s also for the celebrities, and the list is eye-catching—Snoop Dogg, T.I., singer/songwriter Jacquees, former NBA player Stephen Jackson, and rap artist Trina.

The restaurant, which Dillard co-founded with Grammy award-winning rapper 2 Chainz, features a nightclub atmosphere with blue sofas in the VIP area, gold-stained flooring, and multi-colored tiling by the bar. Walk-ins are accepted, but if one wants a table and bottle service, reservations are taken up to three months out.

Escobar serves lunch and dinner every day until 10 p.m. with a menu curated by Chef Dephon Robinson, who’s worked with celebrities such as Queen Latifah and Gabrielle Union. After 10 p.m., the restaurant transforms into a lounge and offers drinks and music until 3 a.m.

The first Escobar opened in 2016 and the second unit debuted three years later. There’s also a spinoff concept, Esco Seafood.

With the right systems now in place, the chain is preparing for a franchise expansion strategy. FSR recently sat down with Dillard to learn more about Escobar’s growth and where development will take place.

How was Escobar founded? 

The concept was founded amongst myself and my business partner, Grammy award-winning rapper 2 Chainz. Pretty much, we just decided that we wanted to create something that would be for the 25 and up the crowd, that would have just a really dope vibe. For example, the Mercedes Benz is our DJ booth—a gold-wrapped Mercedes-Benz.

Our food is really good. I wanted to create something that would serve good food options late at night. Because here in Atlanta, we, at the time, struggled with that and so this is a restaurant where you can get lamb chops, lobster tails, pasta, different things of that nature all the way up until 2 o’clock in the morning. And just having not only great food but great music to go along with it as well as just a good ambiance and vibe. That pretty much was the foundation of our brand.

What made now the right time to start franchising? 

This December will be six years since our first location. So we feel like we have the systems in place to be able to help other people be able to open up their own restaurants and see a lot of the success that we’ve had. This Escobar brand has pretty much been unstoppable even through the pandemic. Our numbers have soared during the pandemic. And so we feel like we’ve got the systems in place to be able to help people be successful, no matter what’s going on in the world now.

The way you describe the vibe and the environment and the menu, it seems like a very elaborate concept across the board. As far as being able to replicate that atmosphere in multiple franchise stores, what will be the keys?

The key will be using the systems that we’ve put in place. Number one is just going to start with the restaurant and the look and the decor of it. The venue needs to have a patio. People love patios, especially when the weather is nice. The colors that we’ve used in the core just really give it a nice party feel. So it’s not just a restaurant, but it’s a lounge, as well. That’s going to be really key, as well as following the recipes that we have set out for the food items that will be on the menu to make sure that everything is consistent and tastes the same.

Could you describe to me some of the characteristics that you guys would look for in a potential franchisee?

So some of our requirements, number one, they have to have at least $150,000 in capital liquid, two years of tax returns showing that they have been bringing in a decent amount of money and have been filing their taxes responsibly, three months of bank statements, a 600 minimum credit score, and the operator of the business must have four years of experience in the hospitality industry. This is just not an industry that you can just hop into without any experience. You can definitely own a restaurant without any experience, but whoever is going to be operating that business definitely is going to need to have some experience in the hospitality industry.

The restaurants do well in the large metropolitan city, but they do good in some of these mid-sized cities, as well. I wouldn’t recommend any city that’s just super, super small, with four stoplights, or anything like that. But those are some of the things that we’re looking for. Somebody that’s just really business savvy, that has experience creating a team and building a team of the right individuals.

When I was perusing your website, I saw the house rules that you guys had, which I thought was pretty fun. Can you share the development of those?

We actually came up with those house rules during the pandemic. So Atlanta was one of the very few cities that remained open while a lot of other places were closed. Being that was the case, people were just really different during the pandemic. I think after being locked down for the amount of time that individuals had to be locked down, they just came out a little buck wild, to be honest with you. And so we ended up developing those house rules due to that. And so, all of the franchisees will have to observe those house rules at their locations, as well. It just really helped us to be able to keep our clientele safe as well as maintain the integrity of our restaurant and just let people know the rules of each location right off the bat so they know what to understand and what we will and will not accept while you’re patronizing our restaurant.

Do you have like a timeline of when you would like to start signing agreements with franchisees and when you think potentially a franchise store could open? Is there a goal you have set for yourself?

So we have a few deals on the table right now and some people that are moving through the process, so hopefully we’ll be signing our first franchise agreement within the next 30 days.

Looking ahead to the future, what do you think Escobar is capable of achieving?

Within the next two years, we would like to at least have 10-15 locations. That’s really our short-term goal. I really think that the sky is the limit. If we stay focused and make sure that we bring on franchisees that are qualified and have that hospitality industry experience, I really think that this is something that can go super far. like I said we’ll be celebrating our six-year anniversary this year in our downtown location, so I don’t see us stopping anytime soon.  – Source: FSR.

In the first quarter, the chain earned $101,000 in average weekly sales per restaurant, equating to $5.3 million annualized AUV . . ..

Once Bankrupt, Kona Grill Continues Turnaround for the Ages

Three years ago, around this time, Kona Grill was unraveling.

In April 2019, the casual-dining chain revealed it was on the verge of bankruptcy. It retained Piper Jaffray as a financial adviser to explore strategic alternatives. Leadership was in disarray, as well; in less than a year, four different executives took on the role of CEO.

Indeed, Kona Grill filed bankruptcy the next month and had its stock listing suspended after trading for 14 cents per share. The chain had 46 restaurants in 2017, but its footprint whittled to 27 over two years.

Later that fall, The ONE Group Hospitality swooped in and purchased the brand for $25 million, initiating a turnaround that’s lost little traction throughout the pandemic.

Kona’s same-store sales increased 21.9 percent in Q1 compared to last year and grew 27.5 percent against 2019. The chain earned $101,000 in average weekly sales per restaurant, equating to $5.3 million annualized AUV. That’s up from $79,000 in 2019, or $4.1 million in annualized AUV.

The brand is carrying pricing of more than 5 percent, but CEO Manny Hilario said most of the growth is coming from increased traffic, thanks to the incremental brunch daypart and happy hour offerings. Kona tracks guest feedback, and there’s been little commentary on pricing, leading Hilario to believe customers are not trading down.

“At Kona Grill our emphasis has been experiential,” Hilario said during The ONE Group’s Q1 earnings call. “So we have not seen any impact even as gas prices have tremendously increased in some of these markets. So we definitely are very aware of that. But again, I also remember that our emphasis on growth has been the value layer. So we have put a lot of emphasis on brunch as well as returning to happy hour. So we’ve seen a lot of success on those dayparts. So to a certain degree, I would say that any difference in check has been driven by our emphasis on strategy.”

Kona’s sister concept, STK Steakhouse, is performing at an even higher level. The brand’s comps rose 66.5 percent versus 2021 and 62.9 percent against 2019. And it’s not as if STK is rolling over bad performances. Same-store sales rose 8.6 percent and 20.8 percent in Q1 2019 and Q1 2021, respectively.

STK earned $311,000 in average weekly sales per unit in the first quarter, equating to a $16.1 million annualized AUV. That’s a big bump from 2019 when it saw $212,000, or $11 million in annualized AUV.

Kona’s off-premises channel mixes 13 percent and STK’s accounts for 5 percent of sales, and both brands are building catering capabilities as offices reopen and larger gatherings resume. Restaurants are also seeing more reservations for private dining, a channel that’s been missing for the past two years.

“The sales momentum proves the interest in dining at our highly differentiated upscale and polished casual restaurants remains strong even in an uncertain environment,” Hilario said. “Our focus on strong operational execution, innovative culinary offerings, and big dining continues to resonate with our guests as we provide exceptional and unforgettable dining experiences with opportunities for guests to enjoy themselves.”

STK Steakhouse’s comps rose 66.5 percent year-over-year.

The sales have set up Kona and STK for future success, with a development pipeline that’s stronger than any other point in company history. In 2022, there are nine openings planned, including two company-owned STK stores in Dallas and San Francisco; a managed STK in London; three corporate Kona units in Riverton, Utah; Columbus, Ohio; and Paradise Valley, Arizona; and three licensed ghost kitchens in partnership with REEF Kitchens.

The ONE Group seeks 40-50 percent ROI for new restaurants. The addressable market is at least 400 outlets, including 200 STK locations globally and at least 200 Kona stores in the U.S. At the end of Q1, STK had 22 restaurants and Kona had 24.

Hilario described the current development environment as “more dynamic,” with the company stretching its lead times on equipment from six months to nine to 12 months.  However, it’s nothing that’s significantly impacted the timing of openings.

“In the past, you could go to equipment distributors and pick up four, five pieces relatively quick,” the CEO said. “Now there are things such as not enough chips, so you get a lot of people pushing back on equipment. We have to be flexible on some specs relative to kitchen equipment. But again, it’s all about project management and be sure that you get ahead of the planning.”

As for real estate, Hilario has seen great availability in malls housed in big markets. Because of all the closures, the executive said there’s flexibility in choosing the best pieces of land. It’s one of the better real estate markets he’s seen, and The ONE Group is receiving “fantastic deals” from landlords as a result.

“But again, I think that’s just a testimony to the success of the brand, so people like to get STKs and Kona Grills and want to get them in their projects because of the average volume and the fact that we have exciting programs like our happy hour programs and our brunch program,” Hilario said. “So I would say that I’m very excited about the go-forward development plans with the only caveat is that we have to be more proactive. And we have to have more lead time and adjust our project timelines for that.”

Companywide, revenues increased 46.9 percent to $74.2 million, exceeding the high end of previous guidance by $4 million. Restaurant operating profit grew 40.8 percent year-over-year to $13 million, and adjusted EBITDA lifted 65.5 percent to $10.8 million.  – Source: FSR.

The pandemic has changed the restaurant industry forever, causing seismic shifts in nearly every industry segment and changing the winning strategies for those that survived . . . .

Datassential’s Firefly 500+: Restaurants focus on unit growth and a bit of indulgence

For many, a focus on core markets and unit growth, rather than just sales, was the way to come out of the last two years ahead — both in terms of the competitive landscape and on their own balance sheets.

Those are just some of the findings in Datassential’s Firefly 500+, the data and insight firm’s fourth annual ranking of the largest restaurant chains and the biggest themes across the restaurant landscape.

In this fourth edition of Datassential’s Firefly 500+, here are a few of the report’s key insights:

Sales growth, rather than new locations, is driving recovery for restaurant chains

As the US-made headway against the COVID pandemic in 2021, that definition of success changed in favor of restaurants and their guests, and increases in average unit volumes contributed to systemwide sales growth more broadly than did unit expansion.

In all, the biggest chains produced combined sales of $340.22 billion in 2021, up 11.4% from 2020. Collective unit sales rose 0.5% from the year before.

Concentrating on core markets helped some chains accelerate unit growth

Two-fifths of the brands in the Firefly 500+ have built at least half of their total locations in one state. Taken collectively, chains that concentrate most of their systems in one state had a unit growth benefit in 2021, growing locations at a rate of 1.9%, nearly four times the unit rate of the entire Firefly 500+.

Ghost kitchens proliferated in 2021

The segment, virtually non-existent before the pandemic, now includes more than 36,000 locations in the U.S.

Chains unlocked winning combinations

Last year was a year for big companies to get even bigger to accelerate growth. Multi-concept operators and groups that grew through acquisition showed slightly stronger sales growth relative to the full Firefly 500+.

A selection of publicly traded companies operating a single brand also recorded an outsized collective sales increase, showing that strategic focus can also benefit growth-minded businesses.

Full-service restaurants bounced back

Each of the six full-service restaurant segments in the Firefly 500+ recorded double-digit percentages of sales growth in 2021. The seafood and steak sector recovered particularly well from the prior year, when broad restrictions and pullbacks on indoor dining and business travel put the brakes on occasions that drove visits to fine-dining restaurants and steakhouses.

Chicken chains continued to innovate beyond the sandwich and the bucket

Last year, the limited-service chicken segment recorded a collective unit growth increase of 4.2%. The segment’s three biggest chains are among the 20 largest brands in the Firefly 500+ and all notched unit growth in 2021, including KFC, showing healthy demand for the chicken sandwiches and fried chicken on the bone that make up the bulk of their menus.

Consumers looked to chains for small bites of joy and indulgence in a year of stress

Last year, American consumers were just as interested in plant-based or healthful cuisine as they were in decadent, colorful, and indulgent foods. The latter manifested itself vividly in both the Firefly 500+ and the chain restaurant universe at large. For example, 2021 was an incredible year for chains specializing in bubble tea. Kung Fu Tea grew its unit count and annual sales by more than 10%. Broadly, four out of the top 10 fastest-growing chains specialized in desserts or other sweet treats.

A look ahead

As the industry recovered from the depths of the COVID pandemic in 2021, the largest foodservice brands jockeyed for position and made moves that could reverberate over the long term.

By Datassential’s sales estimates, Chick-fil-A leaped over Taco Bell into the No. 3 spot, while Dunkin’ passed both Burger King and Subway for the No. 6 sales rank.

Unit count rankings are also poised to get interesting this decade. If the development pace holds for the largest chains, Domino’s Pizza is expected to overtake Pizza Hut for the segment lead in locations next year.

This could also be the year that Tropical Smoothie Café moves past Smoothie King for the largest number of units in the limited-service salad segment. And Texas Roadhouse is gaining on Outback and could have more locations than the segment leader by 2024.  – Source: SmartBrief’s /  from the National Restaurant Association.

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