2017 was a tough year for many chains, particularly of the mid-level variety: Casual dining stalwarts like Applebee’s, Chili’s, and TGI Fridays have had a rough go of things as customers abandon them for a bevy of reasons, from patronizing cheaper fast-casual chains to cooking at home more (hello, meal kits).
But it wasn’t all bad news for chains: McDonald’s is on the upswing after years of declining sales, for instance, while Taco Bell has perfected its particular brand of millennial-bait junk food. Panera is sucking people in with its dubious claims of “clean” food. Plenty of other chains are thriving in the current restaurant industry climate, too, and with that in mind, here are five chains to keep an eye on in 2018.
The Big One: Starbucks
2018 is poised to be a big year for Starbucks. Why?
- Its fancy Roastery brand is expanding — big time. Starbucks opened its first Roastery location in Seattle in 2014, a high-end coffee bar where the company’s pricey “Reserve” beans are roasted on-site and brewed via various methods such as pourover and Chemex, and a cup can cost as much as $12. Founder and figurehead Howard Schultz stepped down from his post as CEO to lead the company’s high-end coffee efforts, and 2018 is slated to be a big year for the Roastery: It just opened its biggest location yet in Shanghai, featuring augmented reality technology and the world’s longest coffee bar, and will open Roasteries in New York and Milan this year.
- Brace for more wacky novelty Frappuccinos. Starbucks found major success this year with hokey, limited-time-only drinks like the Unicorn Frappuccino, the Zombie Frappuccino, and the Christmas Tree Frappuccino. These saccharine-sweet, technicolor concoctions may have been a nightmare for baristas, but the clearly-made-for-Instagram beverages generated a bevy of headlines and drove traffic to stores — so expect to see plenty more weird new creations in 2018.
- It’s betting big on China. Starbucks announced back in 2016 that it planned to open 2,500 more locations in China over the next five years; a new store is currently opening every day. Schultz has stated that China will ultimately overtake the U.S. as its biggest market, and it’s not hard to see why: Thanks to a rapidly growing middle and upper class, its per-capita coffee consumption is projected to rise 18 percent each year for the next several years.
- It’s boldly taking on Italy. Its first location, a fancy and expansive Roastery outpost, will hit Milan in 2018. Home to one of the world’s most cherished coffee cultures, it’s no small feat for Starbucks to sling coffee in Italy, and the world will be watching to see how the coffee giant is received there. Though many have speculated that Italians will snub Starbucks, Schultz has promised the company is approaching the country “with great humility and respect.” If successful, it could be a boon for Starbucks’ European footprint.
- It’s diversifying — with artisan bread. In 2016 Starbucks announced it was investing in Princi, a fancy artisan bakery chain from Italy, to bring fresh-baked-in-house bread and pastries (plus sandwiches and other lunch fare) to select Roastery and Reserve locations. The first outpost opened in November 2017 inside the flagship Seattle Roastery while the second debuted in December within the massive Shanghai Roastery. Starbucks is also acting as the exclusive global licensee for Princi, and in 2018 it will begin opening more standalone Princi stores across the globe. Though it’s not the first time Starbucks has invested in a bakery — in 2012 it bought SF-based La Boulange, a failed venture it abandoned a couple years later — this one seems somewhat more promising in light of the company’s current focus on higher-end offerings.
Fast-Casual Chains to Keep an Eye On
2017 was a huge year for fast-casual: As it gets tougher and tougher for independent, moderately priced restaurants to make it, the market seems to be going in two different directions: ultra-high-end tasting menu spots (hello, Vespertine) or super-affordable fast-casual.
Many big-name chefs have turned their attention to fast-casual, including Michael Solomonov (Goldie), David Chang (Fuku), Mark Ladner (Pasta Flyer), and the dudes behind Eleven Madison Park (Made Nice). Expect the rise of fast-casual to continue in 2018 — and with that in mind, here are five chains that seem poised to make it big this year:
- &pizza: This oddly named, D.C.-born fast-casual pizzeria has grown into a mini-empire since its first store was established in 2012, now with two dozen locations under its belt. It’s raised more than $60 million in capital, opened its first NYC location in mid-2017, and also recently partnered with fellow mover-and-shaker Milk Bar (which is poised for big expansion of its own) to open a tandem location in Boston. Co-founder and CEO Michael Lastoria has said that &pizza’s sales per square foot rival Shake Shack’s.
- Beefsteak: Another big-name chef to dive head-first into fast-casual is Jose Andres. The first outlet of his vegetable-centric spot opened in Washington, D.C., in 2015 and now has five locations total in DC and Philly serving sandwiches, bowls, soups, and salads with a focus on freshness. Beefsteak has national expansion-shaped stars in its eyes, but first it’s figuring out what it wants to be when it grows up: Its current locations include a college campus, a hospital , and a shopping mall, a varied mix that should help the budding chain figure out its target demographic.
- Halal Guys: From a single (albeit extraordinary popular) Manhattan food cart to a rapidly expanding chain of fast-casual brick-and-mortars, this new chain is going big-time. The company currently has 70 locations — nearly all of which are franchises — across the country and many, many more in the works.
- Rise Biscuits & Donuts: The same franchising group that’s aiding Halal Guys’ major expansion has also set its sights on this North Carolina-based breakfast spot, which slings fancy creme brulee doughnuts alongside fried chicken biscuit sandwiches. From a single independent location in 2010 it’s now grown to 15 locations, with several more slated to open in the first quarter of 2017 and 130 more locations currently in development across 10 states.