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Hot Concepts winners: Consumers seek adventure from restaurants

Hot Concepts winners: Consumers seek adventure from restaurants

This is part of Nation’s Restaurant News' special coverage of the 2015 MUFSO conference, taking place Sept. 20–22 at the Hyatt Regency at Reunion Tower in Dallas. Follow coverage of the event on and tweet with us using #MUFSO. Stay connected on the go by downloading the MUFSO app.

Consumers today — particularly Millennials — are looking for adventure from restaurants, and see their food choices as an expression of their identity.

So said a panel of Hot Concepts award winners on Sunday who shared strategies for success at the annual MUFSO conference in Dallas.

The five winners, selected by the Nation’s Restaurant News editorial team, represent trendsetting brands that appeal to the changing consumer.

The Cava Grill team, from left: Dave McKlveen, Nikki Rappaport and Justin Best. Photo: Ron Ruggless

“Millennials and Gen Z are the most blended generations to date,” said Brett Schulman, CEO of Rockville, Md.-based Cava Grill, a fast-casual Mediterranean chain that will hit 13 units next month, including its first in California. “As they’ve become more diverse, we’ve seen their palates expand. They’re seeking culinary adventure, and food is almost an expression of creativity.”

Euripides Pelekanos, CEO of New York-based Bareburger, said today’s young people have different aspirations than their parents.

“Their version of the American dream is not to own a house or a car, but to eat at the coolest restaurants and travel and wear cool clothes,” Pelekanos said. “The Food Network has really changed the way Americans look at food. It’s the ‘Food Network Effect.’ This generation of kids doesn’t have the same dreams my parents had, and they want different experiences.”

Bareburger aims to meet that need with an exotic lineup of burgers made from meats like wild boar, ostrich and duck, as well as grass-fed organic and all-natural beef. The 28-unit chain has expanded to Canada and Tokyo, with plans to open in Frankfurt and Dubai.

Michael Heyne and Dominik Stein, who came to the U.S. from Germany as students, created VertsKebap in part because they missed the doner kebaps of their homeland, but also because the fast-casual concept was something new for adventure-seeking Americans.

It was so new, in fact, that the partners had trouble putting it into a category on Yelp.

The VertsKebap founders, from left: Michael Heyne and Dominik Stein. Photo: Ron Ruggless

Brought to Germany by Turkish emigrants, the doner kebap is a popular street food typically made with thinly sliced rotisserie meats, vegetables and sauces. VertsKebap has updated the concept with beef, lamb, chicken and falafel options, allowing guests to choose kebap on bread, as a wrap or on salad. VertsKebap has 24 units, with another six under construction.

“Not many people know our type of food, so we had to make sure we educated guests,” said Stein, VertsKebap co-founder and chief financial officer.

Heyne, co-founder and CEO, said the company struggled to find a bakery that would make the right bread, and equipment had to be found in Germany to create the “hand stacked” gyro-style rotisserie meats.

“We had to figure out the category here. It’s a continuous learning process,” Heyne said.

Manny Valdes, CEO of Tortas Frontera, a quick-service concept serving Mexican-style tortas, or sandwiches, developed by Chicago chef Rick Bayless, also had to educate consumers, but not just about what makes a torta.

Younger consumers are growing up in a world with Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and they want to know where their food comes from, he said. Restaurants today have to answer that question.
“We put signs up in every restaurant that says where our food comes from, and that’s very unusual in QSR,” Valdes said.

Tortas Frontera, which has several units at O’Hare International Airport, as well as in Chicago and on campus at the University of Pennsylvania, grew from Bayless’ full-service restaurant brands, including Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.

When Bayless first started cooking in Chicago years ago, it was difficult to find traditional Mexican ingredients, so he began building relationships with farmers by making small loans to encourage them to grow the kinds of ingredients he was looking for.

That loan program has been formalized as the Frontera Farmer’s Foundation, which has raised more than $1.5 million to make grants to local farmers to build ingredient resources for the restaurants around Chicago, Valdes said.

“Now the challenge is how to open up development to the rest of the U.S.,” he said.

The Eureka team, from left: Matthew Ellis, Paul Frederick and Danielle Romero. Photo: Ron Ruggless

The 17-unit casual-dining chain Eureka! draws adventure-seekers with an extensive craft beer menu that varies by location, including 40 beers on tap. The Hawthorne, Calif.-based chain is also known for its deep list of whiskies, including many from small-batch sources.

“People told us we had 60 days because we didn’t have mainstream beers,” said Matthew Ellis, general manager of the Eureka! units in Dallas. “But we stuck with it, and craft beer really took off.”

Finding the right talent to grow their brands was also a common theme.

When asked how to addresses the battle for talent, Pelekanos joked that Bareburger planned to replace all employees with robots.

Kidding aside, however, he said the chain is able to recruit top talent by offering equity in the concept. The chain includes equity operators in almost every restaurant, he said.

“When somebody owns something, it’s not just a paycheck anymore,” Pelekanos said. “Ownership used to be the dream. We’ve recreated that dream.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

The MUFSO Premier sponsor is The Coca Cola Company.

Presenting sponsors are: Dinova, Fishbowl, The Beef Checkoff and The Coca Cola Company

Keynotes/general sessions are presented by: Avocados from Mexico, e*Restaurant from Altametrics and the Texas Restaurant Association.

Pillar sponsors include: Heinz Soups, Sweet Street Desserts and Tyson Foodservice (Culinary); Ventura Foods (Entrepreneur); Smithfield Farmland Foodservice Group (Ideas); and Paytronix (Marketing).

The Monday night awards reception and awards presentation are sponsored by: Avocados from Mexico.

Coca Cola presents the Shake, Sparkle & Stir event, and Texas Pete® are sponsoring the MUFSO Kitchen Hero Cook Off, benefiting Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign.

Hot Concept/Best Concepts Celebration is sponsored by e*Restaurant from Altametrics.

MUFSO Breakfast sponsors are Community Coffee, Ole Mexican Foods and TABASCO®.

MUFSO Room Key is sponsored by Arby’s; Badge Holder Necklace is sponsored by Service Management Group.

Welcome Package is sponsored by Whirley-DrinkWorks!

Refreshment breaks are sponsored by Emmi Roth USA, Royal Cup Coffee, Saputo Cheese USA and Wrigley Foodservice.

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