Every new restaurant owner’s dream is to explode in popularity and become a household name, prescription a la Chipotle or Panera. In a time where consumers are moving away from traditional fast food and towards more customized choices, there are plenty of opportunities for newcomers to establish a foothold as a leader in a certain niche, much like Chipotle and Panera have. Let’s discuss some of the big movers in the restaurant market, and how they were able to grow into such a formidable force in their space.

Customized Fast Foods

One would be hard pressed to travel through a major city and not spot multiple “burger bars” such as Five Guys, Smashburger, and dozens of other localized chains, like Good Times Burgers & Fries in Colorado and Wyoming or Burger 21 in Florida, in that offer the customer choices of dozens for toppings on their burger, ranging from traditional options like lettuce, tomato, and pickles, to the more adventurous options, like friend jalapenos, crimini mushrooms, or peanut butter. The popularity of these establishments has caused market share to rise in customer-burger joints, and take away from the big burger players, McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and other national fast food chains. When a major corporation like McDonalds begins testing customer sandwich options in their stores, it’s a sign that they want a piece of a booming new market.

The customization of traditional fast foods is even spreading over to the pizza world. Blaze Pizza has been called the “Chipotle of Pizza” by numerous news outlets, and has snagged celebrity investors like LeBron James and Maria Shriver. The Southern California-based chain, owned by Rick and Elise Wetzel, founders of Wetzel’s pretzels, offers customers 7 different cheese options, 8 proteins, 20 vegetables, and 3 sauces. They estimate that 90% of their sales are custom pizzas.

Re-Thinking Casual Dining

Anyone in the restaurant industry knows the term “fast-casual” and how it can be a killer to sit-down establishments. The core of these casual dining restaurants are just about everywhere you turn. Applebees, TGI Fridays, Ruby Tuesdays, Chili’s, Cheesecake Factory, Red Lobster, and more. Pre-recession, patrons were more than willing to visit all of these eateries on a rotating basis across the week. As time would have it, chain growth in the casual dining space has slowed dramatically…just think, when was the last new TGI Friday’s opened near you?

The decrease in customers to the big-box casual dining restaurants has opened the door for new restaurants to grab a share of the market. One major area that has shown potential for growth is the “neighborhood sports bar” type establishment. We can see this on both a national scale, like Buffalo Wild Wings, or a more localized scale, such as Miller’s Ale House. Miller’s Ale House currently has over 70 locations throughout the United States, and its main draw is the plethora of HD televisions throughout the restaurant showing all of the area’s sporting events. You’d be hard pressed to find a seat in the house where you couldn’t catch the game, or 2 or 3!

Room to Grow with Fast-Casual

Brands like Chipotle, Panera, Qdoba, Tijuana Flats, and other major “walk-in eateries” has garnered all the press surrounding the last few year’s obsession with the Fast-Casual demographic of restaurants. Just because the boom has focused around the burrito/tex-mex and sandwich/salad space doesn’t mean that there aren’t other niches that are showing tremendous growth and potential. BBQ joints, such as Dickey’s and 4 Rivers Smokehouse have found a way to offer delicious smoked meats that traditionally take hours to prepare in a cafeteria-style seating environment. Tava Indian Kitchen in San Francisco, and indikitch in NYC, are battling to become to the first fast-casual Indian dining option, with customizable dishes filled with exotic flavors and ingredients you’d only find in Indian.

More and more customers are turning to fast-casual because of the time it frees up in their day. Most American’s will tell you that there just aren’t enough hours in their day to get done what they need, and being able to be in and out of a restaurant in 30 minutes or less and feeling full from the meal affords these people the little bits of extra time that they may desire to accomplish the day’s tasks.

As the restaurant industry continues to expand with new ideas, concepts, and services, more and more unique types of eateries will emerge and create new niches for future restauranteurs to embark into. What does your restaurant do to differentiate yourself from others in your space? Is a customizable menu on the horizon? Leave a comment with some of your ideas on how to make your restaurant the next Chipotle, even if it’s just in your town!

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