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Meet the 2018 Hot Concepts award winners

Meet the 2018 Hot Concepts award winners

NRN honors five restaurant brands poised for growth

A poke specialist, a chain of “eatertainment” complexes, a biscuit concept, a breakfast restaurant with a full bar and José Andrés first fast-casual chain make up this year’s class of Nation’s Restaurant News’ Hot Concepts Award winners.

These emerging brands each show the potential to become major players in the coming years with their specialized approaches and on-trend menu moves.

Read on to learn more about each of these five growing brands. 



Named for the tomato variety, not the cut of meat, Beefsteak has a lot going for it. It’s a vegetable-centric bowl chain, which means it’s already trend-forward, but it’s also the first fast-casual concept by celebrity chef José Andrés, whose ThinkFoodGroup has a strong record of running critically acclaimed casual and fine-dining restaurants across the country.

Add to that the fact that Compass Group USA recently formed an exclusive three-year partnership to launch ThinkFoodGroup concepts, including Beefsteak, across the giant non-commercial operator’s venues. The second such location recently opened at Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. The first opened on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in June of 2016.

ThinkFoodGroup also operates four Beefsteak locations in the Washington, D.C., area, the first of which opened in early 2015.

Menu highlights include The Eden — a quinoa bowl with edamame, green beans, broccoli, zucchini, cilantro sauce, garlic yogurt, leafy greens, cucumber salad, scallions, sprouts, sesame seeds and lemon honey dressing — and the Frida Kale, which includes its namesake vegetable as well as rice, sweet potatoes, black beans in spicy tomato sauce, cherry tomatoes, scallions, corn nuts, pumpkin seeds and cranberries with honey lemon dressing. 

Its Beefsteak Tomato Burger is a vegan option for which sliced tomato is topped with pickled red onion, sprouts, vegan herb caper mayonnaise, olive oil and sea salt on an olive oil bun.


Breakfast Republic

Now up to seven locations, all in the San Diego area, this three-year-old breakfast-only concept is looking to change the way people treat breakfast.

Open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Breakfast Republic takes variety seriously: There are five types of sausage, including asiago-fennel, Portuguese linguisa and chicken-mango, as well as traditional pork links. The seven French toast option include traditional brioche as well as s’mores and the Mr. Presley — stuffed with peanut butter and topped with bananas Foster and bacon.

Guests can order pancake flights, six types of eggs Benedict, a vegan Madras curry scramble — made with spiced tofu, vegan sausage and vegetables — or a breakfast hot dog, as well as more traditional fare. And if they want to have a beer with that, there are around 20 on tap, which vary by location, as well as a full bar and specialty cocktails. The Morning Mule, for example, has the usual vodka, lime and ginger beer, plus cherry apple bitters.

Founder Johan Engman, whose Rise & Shine Restaurant Group operates other, smaller concepts as well, has designed the restaurants to show a certain upscale whimsy, and he takes branding seriously, selling clothing such as hoodies and bacon socks as well as mugs, sunglasses, kitchen gadgets and condiments that not only create a new revenue stream but also allow customers to be walking advertisements. 

Holler & Dash Biscuit House

Holler & Dash Biscuit House

This two-year-old, 7-unit fast-casual spinoff of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store leans heavily into the trend of indulgent southern biscuits (bacon or sausage with egg and cheese, or fried chicken, or country ham, or straight-up country gravy), but guests can get avocado toast, too (with watermelon radish, lemon Dijon and paprika), or a Greek yogurt parfait with specialty granola and fruit. There’s espresso and nitro cold brew, as well as traditional drip coffee, and the milk and apple juice are organic.

There’s also more chef-driven, curated southern fare, such as the Hamabama biscuit with country ham, red-eye aïoli, kale and apple butter, and the Four O Four sandwich with sweet tea-brined chicken, pickled cabbage, sprouts, cilantro, cucumber and hot sauce aïoli.

Fueled by the power of its Lebanon, Tenn.-based parent, Holler & Dash locations are starting to dot the Southeast, with restaurants in various markets from Celebration, Fla., which is near Orlando, up to Nashville. Locations range from less than 2,000 square feet to nearly 4,000 square feet as management continues to determine where the concept fits best. 



In a sea of small chains and one-off poke concepts, this three-year-old chain, now at 19 units, has momentum on its side, fueled by a pipeline of interested franchisees, a celebrity chef collaborator, and a message that combines healthfulness and sustainability.

Founded in 2015 in Midtown Manhattan, the chain offers guests a dizzying array of options for their poke — a traditional raw-fish salad from Hawaii. They can choose from seven proteins — ahi or albacore tuna, salmon, tofu, chicken, scallops or shrimp — a dozen mix-ins such as blanched kale, shiso, edamame, mango and a couple of seaweed options; eight different sauces, such as ponzu or gochujang; and toppings including pickled ginger and wasabi, avocado, sesame seeds and two types of fish roe, and crunchy toppings including onion crisps, lotus chips, macadamia nuts and toasted rice puffs.

Their selections can be mixed in a bowl over kale, quinoa, sushi rice or brown rice, served over romaine and spring mix as a salad, or wrapped in sushi rice and roasted seaweed as a type of burrito.

Curated options are available as well, including limited-time options offered by celebrity chef and Top Chef alum Sheldon Simeon.

Apart from the health halo of raw fish and vegetables, Pokéworks also has sustainability messaging in its seafood sourcing as well as its décor, with a number of its spaces using Forest Stewardship Council-certified reclaimed wood products.

Seven of the 19 Pokéworks locations are franchised, and its website lists another 35 that are “coming soon.” 

Punch Bowl Social

Punch Bowl Social

Punch Bowl Social is a sort of next-gen “eatertainment” concept, with the shuffleboard, ping-pong, bowling, pinball and Skee-Ball that you might expect, plus karaoke — but food that you might not expect, developed by celebrity chef Hugh Acheson, in a setting described on the Denver-based chain’s website as “dirty modern,” with comfortable chairs and eclectic decor.

Now at 13 units, and with a “significant investment” last year from private equity firm L Catterton, the six-year-old concept is poised for further growth.

Food at the 24,000-square-foot entertainment complexes includes fried bologna and cheese sandwiches (made with mortadella from sustainably-raised pork), lobster bacon fries and chicken and waffles, as well as burgers (from grass-fed beef, or the meat-free Impossible Burger), hot dogs, superfood grain bowls and nachos.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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