20 Fast-Casual Chains Giving Shake Shack a Run for Its Money
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As the restaurant industry evolves, fast-casual dining has become a hit, with Shake Shack seizing the throne as king of fast-casual burgers. But if you want a little more variety without losing quality, why not give these up-and-coming chains a try? Here are 20 restaurants that are taking a serious bite out of the fast-casual market.
And if you know of any chains that we've missed and would like to let everyone know about them, send us an email and we'll add it to the next list (giving you credit, of course)!
Owner: Former New York investment banker Luke Holden
Locations: 17, most are in New York and DC, but there are also locations in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.
The Unique Twist: When living in New York, Luke was always bothered by low-quality lobster rolls full of mayo and celery selling for $30-plus. Determined to provide a better, cheaper lobster roll, he used his long history and relationships with lobster fishermen to make sure that only the freshest Maine lobster overflows each golden bun. And by only taking lobsters from sustainable waters and keeping each roll's meat in a heat-sealed bag, you can rest easy knowing that your roll is good for your wallet, your stomach and your conscience.
The Dish To Try: The lobster rolls, of course, but if you're hanging with a friend, try the Noah's Ark for two. With two halves of lobster, shrimp and crab rolls, four crab claws, as well as two chips, drinks and pickles, you can get an entire Maine platter for only $44.
Owner: While traveling through Germany in 1999, Dean Simon became fascinated by local street vendors making prepared-to-order waffles. After perfecting the recipe, Simon set up Brux Waffles, selling them to American hotels and cruise ships. But after meeting Chef Kelly Mullarney, Dean helped create a thinner, foldable, portable waffle that could work as an all-day offering.
Locations: Seven throughout California, although locations in Southern California and Las Vegas may be coming soon.
The Unique Twist: At only 250 calories, the light and healthy waffle can be paired with a variety of combinations and brought anywhere.
The Dish To Try: The prosciutto or pastrami with Gruyere waffle sandwiches are sure to please, but you can also request a Lemon Creme and Berries or Smores for a sweet treat.
Cooper's Hawk Winery and Restaurant
Owner: Tim McEnery started out in the hospitality industry when he was only 11, working as a dishwasher, before working his way to manager out of high school. Over the course of multiple management stints, Tim always worked towards creating a paradise for those who appreciated wine. He continued to improve himself at Aramark's specialty restaurant division and then at a management position at Lynfred Winery, the oldest and largest winery in Illinois at the time. Finally, at age 29, Tim saw the grand opening of the first Cooper's Hawk in Orland Park, IL.
Locations: The restaurant has 18 locations in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, with four more on the way.
The Unique Twist: This is the restaurant for wine lovers. Each dish is specifically designed around the wines, and each restaurant includes a full bar, a barrel-aging room, a tasting room and a gift store. You can even join a wine club with members-only events and new wines not available to the public each month.
The Dish To Try: Tim's favorite is the gnocchi carbonara served with pancetta, chicken, sage, peas and parmesan garlic cream sauce.
Owner: Leo and Oliver Kramer grew up in Northern California eating at a taqueria, only to receive a shock to the system when they hit the East Coast. The two decided to bring their San Francisco-style burritos to the Big Apple and give Chipotle a run for its money. Oliver even told the Brooklyn Paper that he thinks that Dos Toros has a better burritor. Bold words, but with a die-hard fan base (as you can see) and rising profits, the brothers may just have a shot.
Locations: Eight locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. But the two may be exploring new markets soon.
The Unique Twist: In addition to West Coast-style cooking, Dos Toros truly brands itself on an unique culture that the more corporate Chipotle can't match. The restaurant's website features music videos made by staff, playlists and T-shirts. The Dos Toros experience is just that: an experience, rather than a quick pick-me-up.
The Dish To Try: Like Chipotle, you can build your own bowls, burritos, quesadillas and tacos, which can be filled with naturally raised chicken, pork and steak, or just rice and beans for vegetarians and vegans.
Owner: The chain is was founded by president and CEO Dan Mesches, who is also the CEO of Star Restaurant Group.
Locations: Nine in Texas, Arizona, California and Denver
The Unique Twist: The burger chain is focused on creating the perfect union of top-tier burgers and beer. Hopdoddy's burgers are made daily from naturally raised cows, and the Hopdoddy bar serves local craft beers, cocktails and fresh-squeezed juice. As Dan himself put it, "we're baking our buns all day long—not just in the morning [and] we're grinding our own meats."
The Dish To Try: Dan's favorite burger is the Ahi-Tuna Burger, which features sushi-grade tuna, sprouts, teriyaki, honey wasabi, nori chips, pickled ginger and mayo.
Owner: Inspired by the close, friendly nature of small town America, founder Chris Simms set out to create a unique family dining experience that was kid-friendly, but could also serve quality, chef-designed food and craft beer for parents.
Locations: Lazy Dog has 17 locations. Almost all are in California (with two more coming soon), but there are also spots in Addison, TX, and Las Vegas.
The Unique Twist: Every item on the menu is made from scratch and the restaurant features an extensive list of craft beers. But for dog lovers, the Lazy Dog allows dogs on its patios and has a special menu for man's best friend, including grilled hamburgers and chicken.
The Dish To Try: The menu is constantly changed and updated with seasonal items, like Pumpkin Cheesecake and Pretzel Crusted Pork Schnitzel.
Red Hook Lobster Pound
Owner: While eating lobsters brought back from their friend in Portland, Brooklyn resident Susan Povich and husband Ralph Gorham came up with the idea for Red Hook. Taking advantage of an empty storefront they owned on the waterfront, as well as their experience and relationships with lobster fishermen, Susan and Ralph set out to create a spot with the city's freshest lobster that would attract people from all over the world.
Locations: Even after taking a hit during Hurricane Sandy, Susan and Ralph expanded the chain from Red Hook to Vanderbilt, the East Village and Montauk, as well as Washington, DC. They have even gone mobile with a Reed Hook Lobster Pound food truck, which can be tracked via its Twitter account.
The Unique Twist: With each lobster being hand-picked by Ralph, and Susan working hard to keep the mom-and-pop atmosphere at each location, you're guaranteed to get a fresh lobster roll and unique experience at any Red Hook location. But the two are also focused on the little things that can make or break a dining experience, so expect each roll to be toasted to perfection and each lobster to be fresh and meaty.
The Dish To Try: For those looking for a unique twist on the lobster roll, try the Lobster BLT with Chipotle mayo, Applewood smoked bacon, paprika and scallions.
Owners: Marlow's is the joint effort of Rubicon Enterprise's Richard Rivera; architect, developer and designer Tom DiGiorgio (who also helped design Aqua Blue in Roswell, GA, and Hi Life Kitchen and Cocktails in Norcross, GA); and executive chef and CEO John C. Metz, who has more than 28 years in the Atlanta restaurant industry.
Locations: There are 15 taverns in Georgia and three locations in Florida, with a Tampa location on the way.
The Unique Twist: Marlow's brings the best of American tavern fare to a modern atmosphere. Each location is slick and fashionable—with a black-and-white motif and photographs on brick walls—and features an open kitchen where patrons can watch chefs cook their high-quality meals.
The Dish To Try: Joe says one of the most popular items is the shrimp & grits, which features a white cheddar grit cake, spinach, roma tomato, shallot and roast tomato beurre blanc.
The Melt Shop
Owner: Growing up in Montclair, NJ, Spencer Rubin had a special place in his heart for grilled cheeses, and after receiving a restaurant development degree from Cornell and working at restaurant development company Aurify Brands, Spencer was determined to create a shop with high-quality sandwiches for less than $10.
Locations: Spencer's shop now has six locations: five in NYC and a new shop in DC.
The Unique Twist: At the Melt Shop, comfort food is reaching new levels. With thick milkshakes, greasy tater tots and unique sandwiches all made from scratch, the Melt Shop's wares may not be the healthiest thing on this list, but considering the amount of praise and awards the restaurant has received from critics and customers alike, we'll bet they're the tastiest. Or close to it, anyway.
The Dish To Try: The more adventurous should try the Truffle Melt (with Havarti, Truffle Oil and Arugula on Sourdough) or the Buffalo Melt, with fried chicken, Pepper Jack and Buffalo Blue Sauce on Sourdough.
Owner: Mario Del Pero and Ellen Chen set out to create a local sandwich shop where you could hang out with your friends and have food that would support local farmers. Mario even went to local farmers markets, filling his car to the brim with produce and building relationships with the farmers along the way.
Locations: Mendocino has 11 locations throughout California, with a Santa Monica spot in the works.
The Unique Twist: The farm-to-table restaurant focuses on artisanal sandwiches and extremely high customer service, creating a warm vibe that meshes well with the healthy and fresh food.
The Dish To Try: Mario likes pork belly banh mi, made with caramelized kurobuta pork belly, pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro and jalapeño on toasted ciabatta.
Mighty Quinn's Barbeque
Owner: Along with his partners, Christos Gourmo and Micha Magid, Pit Master Hugh Mangum is on a personal quest for slow smoked perfection. Born and raised in Texas, Hugh spent much of his life exploring different styles and legends of local barbecue. After graduating from the French Culinary Institute and winning an episode of the Food Network's Chopped, Hugh brought his passion and desire for barbecue perfection to a stall that was a hit almost overnight.
Locations: Mighty Quinn's has seven locations throughout Manhattan (four), Brooklyn (two) and New Jersey (one), all of which are accessible by New York Metro.
The Unique Twist: Mighty Quinnʼs borrows from Texan and Carolinan barbecue traditions, fusing them together into something wholly unique. With all-natural meats and poultry, seasoned with spices and smoked with wood for dozens of hours, Mighty's offers smokey, succulent meat that is sliced when you order. And with restaurants made from reclaimed wood, Mighty Quinn's places a huge focus on sustainability.
The Dish To Try: You can get briskets, burnt ends, pulled pork and smoked sausage either on a sandwich or on its own, as well as spare ribs and brontosaurus ribs. Also try the sweet corn fritters with a honey chile dipping sauce and the sweet potato casserole with maple and pecans.
Owner: Clark University chums Ratha Chaupoly and Ben Daitz reconnected in New York City in 2000. After finding out both were in the restaurant business (Ratha opened Kampuchea in 2006, using a very similar menu to Num Pang), the pair decided to work together, opening the first location in Union Square.
Locations: The shop has six locations throughout NYC, with two locations in north and south FiDi coming soon.
The Unique Twist: With graffiti art on the walls and '80s/'90s hip-hop blasting from the speakers, Num Pang brings a retro atmosphere to creative Asian sandwichs that mix Cambodian flavors and American technique. Served on toasted semoline flour baguettes with the shop's signature chili mayo, a rotating selection of sandwiches are made-to-order.
The Dish To Try: This season's special sandwiches include a roasted salmon with swiss chard and honey glaze and a grilled khmer sausage ("Brooklyn Bangers") sandwich with Asian slaw.
Owner: Cameron Mitchell, the renowned restaurateur behind other impressive restaurants including the Guild House, Hudson 29 and Cameron's American Bistro, among others.
Locations: There are 10 Ocean Primes across the country, with two more locations in New York and Boston coming in fall and winter 2015, respectively. Current locations include Beverly Hills, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Tampa and the chain's original location—called Mitchell's Ocean Club—in Columbus, OH.
The Unique Twist: Mixing an impressive variety of seafood, prime cuts of steak, signature cocktails and fine wines with exceptional service and atmospheres tailored to the energy and culture of every city, each Ocean Prime is unique but high-quality, guaranteeing a luxury seafood and steakhouse experience.
The Dish To Try: Each location has distinct menus for every occasion, but there is some overlap. The teriyaki salmon with shiitake sticky rice and soy butter sauce is a staple at most locations, and is sure to impress.
Owner: PizzaRev's founders, Irv Zuckerman and Rodney Eckerman, were enjoying a pleasant retirement after successful careers in concert promotions and as the co-CEOs at Clear Channel Entertainment. But when Rodney's son Nicholas—a foodie with experience in high-profile restaurant management who now serves as PizzaRev's COO and co-president—proposed the idea of a create-your-own pizza franchise, Irv and Rodney's interests were piqued. Pulling in Irv's son Jeff for marketing help, the four created PizzaRev.
Locations: There are 29 PizzaRevs in California, Colorado, Minnesota, South Dakota, Texas and Utah, but more chains in Columbus, OH; New York; and Nevada are on their way.
The Unique Twist: From crust to sauces to toppings, PizzaRev allows you to make your own pizza from a cafeteria-style serving station. Your pizza will then be cooked and served to you in three minutes or less.
The Dish To Try: While PizzaRev prides itself on the freedom it gives you to make your own pizza, it also understands that such freedom can be overwhelming. You can order more orthodox pizzas, ranging from one cheese to Buffalo Chicken and Meat and Peppers.
Owner: Founder James Markham has been experimenting for years with different pizza chains in order to create a fast, casual custom pizza restaurant that could serve quality pizza without costing more than it should. After starting up Mod Pizza in Seattle and Pie-ology in California, Project Pie is the culmination of James' mission and all the lessons he's taken from his past ventures.
Locations: Project Pie has become a worldwide experiment, with 22 locations in Las Vegas, California, Dallas and Indianapolis, as well as the UK and the Philippines. Locations will also be coming to Michigan.
The Unique Twist: With artisan pizzas, pop art and neon lights lining the walls and toppings like rosemary and sea salt, Project Pie stands apart with high-quality ingredients and a vintage, eclectic feel that channels the art deco era.
The Dish To Try: Like PizzaRev, you can make your own pizza if you want, but Project Pie's "by the number" pizzas have their own appeal, such as Markham's favorite, Brussel sprout and prosciutto pizza.
Schnipper's Quality Kitchen
Owner: Jonathan and Andrew Schnipper—who also founded Hale and Hearty Soups—went on a cross-country trip to discover what makes a legendary burger. They ended up with a menu that incorporates the various foods that make up American cuisine.
Locations: All four of Schnipper's restaurants can be found in New York City.
The Unique Twist: Schnipper's menus are as American as you can get, with big, greasy burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches and handcrafted milkshakes. It's simple stuff, but it's all made in-house with the finest ingredients.
The Dish To Try: The S'mores Specialty Shake is something you won't find in many other restaurants. Pairing it up with a chicken bacon cheddar melt—made with thick-cut Applewood smoked bacon, white cheddar, baby arugula, plum tomatoes and "Schnipper sauce"—will fill you up for hours, for less than $20, at that.
Owners: Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru and Jonathan Neman started the salad chain after graduating from Georgetown's business school, determined to ride the sustainability trend along with a huge focus on ethical, fresh, made-to-order salads and frozen yogurts. In the eight years since sweetgreen's founding, the three have received a $22M investment from AOL's Steve Case and even started their own music festival.
Locations: The sweetgreen franchise now has 31 locations in California, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.
The Unique Twist: sweetgreen is all about making the customer feel good. With a focus on sustainability, health and making an impact, sweetgreen's salads will cleanse your palette and your conscience. Even the locations preserve the structure of the original buildings.
The Dish To Try: The menus vary between regions and seasons, but you should be rushing to enjoy sweetgreen's late summer salads, including "Watermelon+Feta" and "Blue Hill's 'Wasted.'"
Owner: Feeling homesick for the food of Tel Aviv, Israeli husband-and-wife chefs Einat Admony and Stefan Nafziger found an empty storefront and decided to use Einat's decades of international cooking experience to create a falafel shop with a gourmet twist.
Locations: There are only two locations, both of which are in New York City.
The Unique Twist: With fresh, strictly vegetatian and gluten-free ingredients, Einat and Stefan bring a high-class, modern twist to fast food and traditional falafel flavors.
The Dish To Try: Taïm's falafels are made with hummus, israeli salad, pickled cabbage and tahini sauce. You can also create your own smoothies by choosing two fruits and whole, skim or soy milk or fresh orange juice.
Twisted Root Burger Co
Owners: Quincy Hart and Jason Boso met at culinary school. While Jason had drudged through countless corporate jobs before trying his hand at restaurants, Quincy was a 35-year veteran of the Southwestern Bell and a passionate home chef. Forming a strong bond, the two worked together to discover what would make the ultimate American burger. Even when they graduated and went their separate ways (Jason to Four Seasons Resort and Hotel in Las Colinas; Quincy to the Pappas Brothers), the two kept in touch, honing their skills and working towards their own restaurant. The two opened Twisted Root a few years later and, after a spot on Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, business kicked off.
Locations: Of Twisted Roots' 14 locations, all but one are in Texas, with the 14th in Louisiana.
The Unique Twist: Working towards better and better burgers, Twisted Root has a build-your-own burger option and includes offbeat toppings like prosciutto, peanut butter and Fritos. It also offers a "twisted" variety of game meats that can be available at each location, including venison, elk, lamb, ostrich, kangaroo, emu, boar, gator, rabbit, camel, duck and beaver.
The Dish To Try: If camel and ostrich aren't your thing, you can always order Twisted's own manic creations, including the "Freshman 15," topped with french fries, cheddar cheese, a hard egg and two pieces of bacon, or the "Sexy Hawaiian," which features jalapeño jack cheese, teryaki sauce, pineapple salsa and prosciutto.
Xi'an Famous Foods
Owner: CEO and President Jason Wang and his family come from Xi’an, one of the oldest cities in China with more than 3,100 years of history. After moving to the US, Jason yearned for the flavors of his grandfather's cooking, thinking he wasn't the only one homesick for traditional Chinese cuisine. The first Xi'an Famous Foods opened in the basement of Flushing's Golden Shopping Mall and after Jason graduated college, he went corporate for a short time before focusing on the family business full-time.
Locations: Jason has helped expand the restaurant to Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the chain now has eight locations total.
The Unique Twist: The original location was the first restaurant to bring the Xi’an cuisine to the US. With signature hand-ripped noodles, secret spice mixes, and Xi’an “burgers” with housemade flatbread, the family-owned business hopes to bring the cuisine to those who missed it and those who've never even heard of Xi'an before.
The Dish To Try: In addition liangpi “cold skin” noodles, lamb pao mo soup, and wide hand-pulled “biang biang” noodles, you should try Xi'an's stewed pork and spicy cumin lamb burgers.