Representing the Chicagobased Hot Concept winner Naf Naf Grill from left David Sloan Sahar Sander Justin Halpenny and Elan Burger

Representing the Chicago-based Hot Concept winner Naf Naf Grill, from left: David Sloan, Sahar Sander, Justin Halpenny and Elan Burger.

Hot Concepts: Fast casual, fresh and made from scratch

This is part of Nation’s Restaurant News' special coverage of the 2016 MUFSO conference, taking place Oct. 23–25 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.

In the increasingly sink-or-swim environment of the restaurant industry, this year’s crop of Hot Concepts share some common themes: They’re all fast casual. They all offer healthful, made-from-scratch food with quality ingredients. And they all veer off the familiar path of pizza, burgers or sandwiches.

Leaders of the five Hot Concepts brands on Monday outlined what has worked for their concepts, despite an uncertain macroeconomic climate and the inherent challenges of growth.

Four-unit Velvet Taco is known for its globally inspired tacos; red velvet cake; and to-go sales of whole, rotisserie “back door” chicken with sides.

“People want to see their food being made,” said Randy Dewitt, founder and CEO of Velvet Taco parent company Front Burner Restaurants LP, based in Dallas. “At Velvet Taco, there are no walls: People can see right into the kitchen.”

One unit is so busy that it receives fresh produce delivery twice a day. Customers see whole ears of corn in the husk coming into the restaurant, and when they order the elote corn dish, they make the connection, he said.

Growing the brand, however, means growing infrastructure.

With three restaurants scheduled for next year, Dewitt said Velvet Taco is looking for a CEO.

“We believe we need to get that leader in early while they can wrap their head around the restaurants and get to know every employee,” he said.

David Sloan, co-CEO of Chicago-based Naf Naf Grill, contends that growth also depends on establishing the right culture.

Scalability, however, has come with simplicity.

The first three Naf Naf Grill units opened with a large menu. When the company realized that shawarma struck a chord with consumers, Sloan said they decided to eliminate 80 percent of the menu to focus on three platforms: chicken shawarma, steak shawarma and falafel, along with a host of unique and authentic sauces and in-house baked pita.

“We had the ability to keep it fresh and not take short cuts,” Sloan said.

Now Naf Naf Grill has 25 locations and expects to reach 29 units by the end of the year, with another 15 restaurants planned next year. After that, Sloan said, “We’ll look at franchising with the right partner.”

Philadelphia-based Honeygrow serves salads and stir fries via touchscreen kiosk technology that gives customers control over their order.

The chain, which last year won a $25 million in financing from existing investors, has been “blessed with investors that let us do our own thing,” said Justin Rosenberg, Honeygrow founder and CEO. The chain has 12 units and expects to reach 15 locations by the end of the year.

Rosenberg said he launched the brand for purely selfish reasons.

“I was tired of sitting in a cubicle,” he said. “I created a company for myself to be happy, for my team to be happy and to create things I love.”

In his employees, Rosenberg looks for personality and coachability, rather than restaurant experience.

“We train them to use a knife,” he said.

The fast-casual space is becoming increasingly crowded, Rosenberg noted, but he urged the creative types in the industry to “stay hungry and stay focused. The BS concepts will go away.”

In the crowded world of fresh-pressed juice, Santa Ana, Calif.-based Nékter Juice Bar is on track to reach 300 units by 2020.

“We’re reinventing juice the way Starbucks reinvented coffee,” said co-founder and CEO Steve Schulze.

When asked what makes the brand stand apart, Schulze said: “People ask us who our competitor is, and I still haven’t been able to answer. My focus is just doing what we do and doing it well. If you pay attention to your team and the quality of your product, the rest will take care of itself.”

Andy Duddleston, managing partner of The Little Beet, based in New York, agreed.

The vegetable-forward Little Beet has won a following by “helping people fall in love with vegetables again,” Duddleston said.

As the six-unit chain has grown to the Washington, D.C., area and soon beyond, Duddleston said he has been most excited by the brand’s ability to positively impact the lives of team members.

“We’re building a brand they can believe in and get excited about because of our culture,” he said. “Who knew beets could be exciting and delicious?”

Correction: Oct. 26, 2016  An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Naf Naf Grill’s growth plans and misattributed a quote.

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

The MUFSO Premier sponsor is The Coca Cola Company

Presenting sponsors are: LoyaltyPlant, S&D Coffee, Thanx, The Coca-Cola Company

Keynotes/general sessions are presented by: Avocados from Mexico and Potatoes USA, La Tartine FoodService, Steritech

Pillar sponsors include: Boylan Bottling, GrubHub, JAVI A/V; McCain Foodservice; Smithfield-Farmland; Sweet Street Desserts; Texas Capital Bank; Tyson Foodservice; Univision; Ventura Foods; Whirley-DrinkWorks!

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 Concepts Celebration is sponsored by Nestle Foodservice; TABASCO®; Young Guns Produce

MUFSO Breakfast sponsors are Community Coffee and Cholula

MUFSO Lunch sponsors are Cholula and Moore's Food Resources

MUFSO Room Key is sponsored by Arby’s

Refreshment breaks are sponsored by Cholula, Royal Cup Coffee and Wrigley

VIP Dinner sponsored by GrubHub for Restaurants, HAVI, Slade Gorton and Whirley-DrinkWorks!

TAGS: Fast Casual
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