New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington are traditional food hubs where much of the restaurant industry’s innovation happens. But a trade publication for the restaurant industry says that outside those metropolises, Austin is “the most exciting city to watch” for fast-casual dining concepts.
“With a unique combination of cultural flair and major corporate activity, Austin has become an incubator of sorts for exciting fast-casual concepts that avoid common chain pitfalls and yet have the infrastructure in place to scale into national brands,” Sam Oches, editorial director of QSR magazine, writes.
“Fast casual” refers to eateries that sell food above the quality of fast-food joints like KFC and McDonald’s but don’t offer full table service. Well-known brands under the fast-casual umbrella include Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bread, Schlotzky’s, and Shake Shack.
“Fast-casual restaurants thrive in cities with populations that are food-forward and embrace new experiences,” Oches tells CultureMap. “Austin is a unique combination of business savvy and cultural progression, and those things — combined with a young, energetic population of both consumers and entrepreneurs — have likely turned Austin into such a fast-casual hub.”
On its recent list of the 40 most exciting fast-casual brands in the U.S. with fewer than 40 locations, QSR spotlights three Austin-based chains that are helping turn the city into a fast-casual hub.
“Our vision is to be the leading fast-casual Korean barbecue brand in the world,” Chi’Lantro founder and CEO Jae Kim tells QSR. “We inspire the way people eat, think about, and experience Korean barbecue.”
Hopdoddy Burger Bar
QSR reports that Hopdoddy expects to open six to eight more locations in 2017, including one in Nashville.
Tarka Indian Kitchen
“We believe we can get to hundreds of these units around the country, not to mention the world,” Tarka co-founder and CEO Tinku Saini tells QSR. “Around the country, in every major metropolitan market, there’s no reason why there can’t be multiple stores.”
During a visit to Austin during this year’s SXSW, Oches scoped out Austin’s fast-casual scene and singled out 15 “exciting” locally grown restaurant brands, including Chi’Lantro, Hopdoddy, and Tarka. The other local brands highlighted by Oches are Baby Greens, Flyrite Chicken, General Tso’Boy, La Barbecue, Noble Sandwich Co., P. Terry’s Burger Stand, PhoNatic, Ramen Tatsu-Ya, Snap Kitchen, Tacodeli, Torchy’s Tacos, and Verts Mediterranean Grill.
In his piece about Austin, Oches declares Austin is “the next great epicenter for fast-casual restaurant development.”
“The fast-casual scene in Austin is one of the most dynamic and exciting in the U.S.,” Oches tells CultureMap. “There are dozens of fast-casual concepts with potential to thrive not only in Austin, but also all over Texas and potentially the country. The Austin fast-casual scene is also incredibly creative, which is one of the reasons these brands have so much potential outside the city.”
When it comes to growth in two segments of the restaurant business — fast food and fast casual — Austin is a whopper, according to QSR. The magazine predicts that among the country’s large and midsize markets, Austin will see the most collective growth in those two restaurant sectors over the next several years.
QSR foresees 19 percent growth in customer traffic at Austin’s fast-food and fast-casual restaurants from 2016 to 2021. Only one region in the U.S. — the small market of Minot-Bismarck-Dickinson, North Dakota — is projected to experience more robust growth (24 percent) during the same period.