Small Business

What's the next big restaurant hit? 10 brands to watch

Emerging restaurant brands

Twisted Root Burger Co
Source: Twisted Root Burger Co

What if you could find the next cult restaurant—another Shake Shack or Chipotle—before it hit the big time?

A recent ranking of emerging restaurant brands from Czar Metrics and Bellwether Food Group aims to do just that—to cull multiple data sources to find restaurants to watch during the next few years.

This historical social media research and data info, Czar Metrics notes, is increasingly valuable and used by investors as part of their due diligence.

"Most of them are not going to develop into big national brands," said Mike Lukianoff, founder and CEO of Czar Metrics, in a phone interview. "I think a good number of them have potential to be super regionals and develop that cult following."

The index includes an array of extensive data sources: 300 million restaurant-related tweets, 2.6 million Foursquare records, including check-ins, comments and reviews, 1.3 million reviews from 42,000 restaurants across multiple review sites, 15,000 blog posts and 9 million restaurant-related Facebook posts.

Many of the restaurants on the list include fast-casual chains that offer more premium items at quicker speeds than sit-down dining. Twisted Root Burger Co. is one example of these emerging fast-casual players, coming in at No. 9 on the list. One of its build-your-own creations is shown here.

"It's been fascinating to me—how much attention the restaurant space is getting from the investment community," Lukianoff added.

Indeed, several restaurants on the list have attracted attention and investment from large investors—money that they've used to expand.

Click ahead to see this year's emerging restaurant brands.

—By's Katie Little
Updated 15 April 2015
posted 12 Feb. 2015

10. Ocean Prime

Ocean Prime

What sets it apart: Mix one part fine dining seafood restaurant with a fine dining steakhouse and a bar, and you've got the recipe for Ocean Prime, a chain located mostly in major U.S. cities. Its teriyaki salmon with shiitake sticky rice and soy butter sauce is pictured here.

Cameron Mitchell, founder and president of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, Ocean Prime's parent company, describes the chain as a "much more female-centric concept than" its counterparts.

The strategy appears to be working. It topped an enthusiasm index that the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland created for the study.

Locations: 11

Expansion plans: Ocean Prime plans to open an outpost in Boston and one in New York.

Details on investors: Cameron Mitchell Restaurants is the restaurant's parent company.

Favorite menu item: "One of my personal favorite dishes is blackened snapper with cornbread stuffing," Mitchell said. "It's pretty darn tasty. I also like our jalapeno au gratin side dish."

9. Twisted Root

Twisted Root Burger Co
Source: Twisted Root Burger Co

What sets it apart: Part of the burgeoning better burger segment, Twisted Root has a build-your-own burger option in addition to a list of its burger creations, which include some offbeat toppings like prosciutto, peanut butter and Fritos. It also offers an adventurous medley of game meats depending on availability at each location, including venison, elk, lamb, ostrich, kangaroo, emu, boar, gator, rabbit, camel, duck and beaver. Shown here is its truffle mushroom and smoked gouda burger.

Locations: 11, according to its site

Expansion plans: Three more locations in Texas are coming soon

8. Marlow’s Tavern

Source: Marlow's Tavern

What sets it apart: This modern tavern includes an open kitchen where diners can see chefs prepare meals. Restaurant décor includes a black and white motif and photographs along with brick walls.

Locations: 15 locations in the Atlanta and Orlando, Florida, areas

Details on investors: The company is privately held, owned and operated by the leadership team, said John Metz, executive chef, partner and co-founder.

Favorite menu item: Since Metz helped create the menu, he said it's difficult to pick a favorite.

"Some of our most popular items are our smoked trout dip, black & blue salad, tavern burger, chicken stack, shrimp & grits," he wrote in an email.

7. Project Pie

Project Pie's pizza #5 (Mozzarella, Ricotta, Gorgonzola, Parmesan, Cracked Black Pepper, Olive Oil, Garlic, Fresh Chopped Basil)
Source: Project Pie

What sets it apart: Project Pie is one of two fast-casual pizza chains to make this year's emerging restaurants list. It bills itself as offering "everyday artisan pizza" that includes toppings like rosemary and sea salt. James Markham, Project Pie's founder and CEO, says it sets itself apart with its high-quality ingredients and authentic vibe.

For the chain's next store, it is going for a more vintage, eclectic feel that channels the art deco era and includes pop art.

Locations: 19

Expansion plans: Another 13 locations are in the works to open this year.

Details on investors: Early last year, Project Pie announced it was working with Lee Equity Partners, a middle-market private equity firm. The deal's terms were not disclosed.

Favorite menu item: Brussel sprout and prosciutto pizza, Markham said.

6. PizzaRev

Pizza Rev | Facebook

What sets it apart: With "oven-fired" pizza ready in less than three minutes, PizzaRev is another fast-casual pizza restaurant that made the cut this year. PizzaRev co-CEO Rodney Eckerman said its restaurants offer "really fine, fresh-to-market ingredients all served at one price versus most pizza restaurants charge per topping, and it's a personalized experience, and it's delivered really fast."

Locations: 26 locations

Upcoming expansion: Next week, the chain will open its 27th location in Santa Barbara, California.

Details on investors: The company got off the ground initially with funding from Eckerman and his business partner Irv Zuckerman. Buffalo Wild Wings later made a strategic investment, which it increased last year. PizzaRev closed a development line of credit late last year with Highland Park Bank.

Favorite menu item: Eckerman said he loves the Italian fennel sausage with organic red sauce and Italian cheese.

5. Lazy Dog Restaurant and Bar

Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar

What sets it apart: When he founded Lazy Dog Restaurant and Bar 11 years ago, the company's CEO, Chris Simms, set out to change the perception of family dining.

"That means parents can get a craft beer, have a chef-driven dish and the kids will still have a great time too," he said.

Each item is made from scratch, and the company has an extensive list of craft beers. Shown here are the restaurant's flatbreads.

The dog part of its name? The Fido-friendly restaurant welcomes canines on its patios and even has a special dog menu for man's best friend that includes a grilled hamburger patty with brown rice, a grilled chicken breast with brown rice and plain brown rice.

Locations: 16

Expansion plans: To date, the Southern California-headquartered restaurant has grown exclusively in its home state but recently underwent first out-of-state expansion with a restaurant in Las Vegas. It also aims to open locations in the Dallas area.

Details on investors: A significant investment from Brentwood Associates in 2013 has enabled it to continue to grow and expand beyond its home base.

Favorite menu item: Depends on Simms' mood. For something spicy, he gets the togarashi edamame and Baja California burger with hatch chiles or the campfire pot roast when he wants comfort food. Now that it's January and Simms wants something on the lighter side, he's sticking with the spicy Thai chicken salad.

4. Bruxie

Source: Bruxie

What sets it apart: Light, airy and not sweet, the Bruxie-style waffle is made to order and is only 250 calories.

Current locations: Seven in California

Expansion plans: For now, growth will focus on the Southern California region with Las Vegas on the horizon next year.

Details on investors: They include the restaurant's co-founders, family, friends, industry leaders Bill Allen, Paul Fleming, Gordon Miles and private equity firm Catterton Partners.

Favorite menu item: Dean Simon, co-founder: Pastrami Bruxie, lemon cream and berries Bruxie.

Kelly Mullarney, co-founder: Prosciutto & Gruyere Bruxie and s'mores with bacon.

3. Hopdoddy Burger Bar

Hopdoddy Burger Bar in Austin, Texas

What sets it apart: "We're baking our buns all day long—not just in the morning," said Hopdoddy's president, Dan Mesches, in a phone interview. "We're grinding our own meats."

The better burger chain's menu includes local beers, craft cocktails, fresh-squeezed juice and beef from cows that are raised without growth hormones or antibiotics.

Current locations: Seven in Texas, Scottsdale, Arizona, and Denver

Expansion plans: The restaurant has about six to seven new stores planned in Southern California, Colorado, Texas and Arizona.

Details on investors: Hopdoddy has partnered with Catterton Partners as it continues to expand. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Favorite menu item: Mesches said he loves the chain's salads and also its ahi tuna burger, which he describes as one of his "all-time favorite burgers."

2. Cooper's Hawk

Cooper's Hawk
Source: Cooper's Hawk

What sets it apart: It's all about the wine at this modern casual dining restaurant, which creates the dishes with the wine in mind. Each location includes a restaurant, full bar, barrel-aging room, tasting room and gift store. The company also has a wine club, which includes members-only events and new wines each month.

Locations? Since opening in 2005, it has expanded to 18 locations in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Expansion plans: Cooper's Hawk to open four new locations in 2015 and 2016—two in Florida, one in Virginia and one in Illinois.

Favorite menu item: One of the favorites for Tim McEnery, its founder and CEO, is the gnocchi carbonara served with pancetta, chicken, sage, peas, and parmesan garlic cream sauce (shown here).

1. Mendocino Farms

Mendocino Farms location.
Source: Mendocino Farms

What sets it apart: This farm-to-table restaurant focuses on the sandwich, featuring fine dining entrees that it has distilled to the sandwich level. It saw the third-highest total of check-ins per location in Czar Metrics' analysis and the second-highest star rating.

Locations: Nine in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Expansion plans: This year, Mendocino plans to open three more locations in California.

Details on investors: Mendocino Farms' investors include Catterton Partners.

Favorite menu item: Mario Del Pero, the restaurant's founder, likes pork belly banh mi, a made with caramelized kurobuta pork belly, pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro and jalapeño on toasted ciabatta.