The question most asked of any editor at Nation’s Restaurant News is, “What’s hot?”
It is a pressure-filled question, and I can tend to buckle. There is so much action in the restaurant industry, from brand-new concepts (Eatsa) to hot-again brands (Arby’s), to surging, global chains (Domino’s). There are segments that customers and investors can’t get enough of (fast-casual pizza), and there are new macro trends re-shaping the industry (on-demand delivery). Let’s also not forget ever-changing ingredients du jour (still Sriracha sauce).
But there is one time of the year when I can answer that question with total confidence. The Nation’s Restaurant News Hot Concepts Award winners showcase today’s best brands with the biggest buzz. Hot Concepts winners combine on-trend menus and ambiance with solid operations and a very clear runway for growth. Investors are excited; customers are plentiful; and management teams are amped.
This year’s class is one of the best.
I first spoke over e-mail with Honeygrow founder Justin Rosenberg last year when the brand received major financing, and his story has unfolded rapidly from there. While in Chicago, I made a point of popping into a Naf Naf Grill to confirm the stardust NRN’s Jonathan Maze says the brand has ready to sprinkle nationwide. I’m a frequent customer of The Little Beet in midtown Manhattan, often sticking it out through 40-minute lines at lunchtime for a meal that tastes good and is good for me. I eagerly attended a panel with Nékter Juice co-founder Alexis Schulze last year, and her passion for the lifestyle brand she helped create was palpable. And I was lucky enough to have NRN’s Ron Ruggless escort me to a Velvet Taco in Dallas so I could not only taste global fusion in taco form, but also feel the vibe of a communal, hipster spot. (That red velvet cake, though.)
We take Hot Concepts seriously at NRN, and the industry does as well. Former award winners have become major players — Shake Shack, Smashburger, Cava Grill, Mendocino Farms, Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants and Which Wich, just to name a few.
Next month, at our MUFSO conference (Oct. 23-25 in Dallas), the 2016 Hot Concepts Award winners get to party, and deservedly so. In a tough economic environment that has negatively affected restaurants across the industry this spring and summer, these brands continue to kick ass and take names.
They are the definition of what’s hot, no questions asked.