Why Tech-Focused Fast Casuals are Attractive to Investment Firms

Healthy-halo fast casual brands are not only on the rise because they fit the lifestyle of so many consumers looking to maintain a healthier diet, but most of these concepts have also seamlessly incorporated technology.

One of these brands sweetgreen, a make your own salad chain, is using technology to enhance the customer experience.

"Nearly half of Sweetgreen’s customer orders are placed through its app; that data is used to tweak menu offerings and make personalized recommendations," writes "Wired."

As customers gravitate more to online ordering, the restaurants with these systems in place in-house are at an advantage. Sweetgreen also uses this data to determine how much each store should order of each ingredient. So, this helps to keep food waste at a minimum.

Another up and coming healthy-focused restaurant start-up Joe & Juice is expected to IPO later this year after receiving millions in investment.

The restaurants ahead of the curve when it comes to artificial intelligence and data collection have become the most attractive to investors.

“The next five years will be more disruptive to food service operators than the last 50,” says restaurant consultant Aaron Allen, pointing to the boom in online ordering, which is expected to grow nearly four times faster than the rest of the restaurant industry, and in delivery-only “ghost kitchens.” VCs are betting that diners are willing to trade physical restaurants—and personal data—for AI-extracted “content," writes "Wired."

Read more about the venture firms investing in tech-focused fast casual brands at "Wired."

We have been following sweetgreen since it was founded in 2007. In 2016, the brand moved its headquarters to LA, a strategic move to be closer to the tech industry.

In a recent episode of The Barron Report, Host Paul Barron outlines why he thinks sweetgreen has become the next fast casual unicorn. Watch the video below to learn more.

Chipotle Launches New Mentorship Program for Start-Ups

10 years ago, Chipotle emerged as the darling of the fast casual segment. Other concepts in the segment were all striving to be the Chipotle of their category. But ever since Chipotle's food safety crisis back in 2015, the chain has been on a long road to recovery.

However, with the hire of former Taco Bell executive Brian Niccol and new menu additions, the restaurant's stock has gradually climbed in the last year. Analyst Andy Barish recently predicted that investing in the chain is a smart move in 2019.

The chain has announced its latest move to change the future of food, it will be partnering with the non-profit Uncharted to launch the Chipotle Aluminaries Project, a program that will help food start-ups grow.

"Since our founding, Chipotle has been committed to cultivating a better world, and we believe the best way to lead the future of food is to inspire others to come along with us on the journey and be a force for good in our industry," said Brian Niccol, Chipotle CEO in a statement.

Eight food companies have been selected based on innovation.

Some of the start-ups include-

American Ostrich Farms: an ostrich meat producer. This meat makes much less of an ecological impact.

Grubtubs Inc.: a company that makes animal feed made from food waste.

Sophie's Kitchen Plant-Based Seafood: a plant-based seafood producer.

AgVoice: a mobile voice-interaction service designed for food and agriculture professionals that helps them tracks animal and plant production.

The eight companies selected to participate will attend a 5-day boot camp where they will get insights and advice from industry leaders like some Chipotle executives and the entrepreneur Kimbal Musk.

The participants will also be meeting with their mentors one-on-one to get investor training and guidance on their business.

"At Chipotle, we feel we have a responsibility and opportunity to forge a path to a more sustainable food future," said Caitlin Leibert, Chipotle's Director of Sustainability.

Read more about the new program at "Forbes" now.

On a recent episode of The Barron Report, Host Paul Barron explains why he thinks the chain's recent introduction of its Lifestyle Bowls was a slamdunk. Watch the video below to learn more about Chipotle's latest move to not only appeal to health-conscious eaters but to reclaim its top spot in the fast casual market.

How the Emerging Brand and Shark Tank-Backed OatMeals Ventures to Define a New Fast Casual Category

Emerging brands continue to outperform the pack of cornerstone restaurants brands over the past year and the category breakouts are in a race for leadership. Take the crowded fast casual pizza category that now has a clear leader that has prevailed in Mod Pizza.

More and more category challengers are being created in a variety of segments today.

When you analyze the healthy halo category, it’s being dominated by sweetgreen and Tender Greens with new challengers like Lemonade and Flower Child.

Fresh Mex has been holding strong with Chipotle, however, they have seen some fall off in the dominance they once had in meal occasions. This leads us to a much more fragmented field of new category leaders.

OatMeals, on the other hand, is one of these unusual but potentially new category entries that could set a new standard for what it means to innovate at the brand level.

I had a chance to sit down with Founder and CEO Samantha Stephens of OatMeals, a one-unit NYC concept that is aiming to transform what was once a breakfast only menu item into an entire category for menu innovation.

Join me and watch this episode of The Barron Report above as we discuss how consumers are responding to this unusual brand, what it takes to launch a concept like this, and what it was like to present to the sharks on hit TV show "Shark Tank" and actually get a deal with Lori Greiner to build out the brand concept with an entirely new approach to brand building.

Breakfast Chain First Watch Opens Fast Casual Concept in Nashville

The rapidly growing casual dining chain First Watch is testing a fast casual concept with a location in Nashville, Tennessee.

The new restaurant named Sun & Fork serves breakfast all day and is catering to the on-the-go millennials in the area.

“With Sun & Fork, we’ve created a restaurant for Vanderbilt [University] students and staff, the surrounding medical community and other local area businesses and residents to enjoy those healthy options and other First Watch favorites,” said Chris Tomasso, First Watch CEO.

First Watch bought Bread & Co, a bakery chain back in 2014 and has transformed former location of the bakery in Nashville to be the home of the new Sun & Fork concept.

The menu features many trendy breakfast food items like avocado toast, A.M. superfood bowls, and quinoa bowls. There are also build-your-own bowls, breakfast burritos, grab-and-go juices, and sandwiches like the "Elevated Egg" sandwich.

For those tight for time, the restaurant offers online ordering through its website.

So will First Watch expand this concept and attempt to also conquer the fast casual breakfast market?

It's too early to tell, but it's certainly a possibility.

“It’s our first go at operating a fast-casual First Watch concept like this, and it’ll be a great learning experience for us,” said Eleni Pierce, public relations and communications manager at First Watch. “There is absolutely potential in the future that we may expand into other markets. But we’ll see.”

There are now over 290 First Watch restaurants. In 2012, Consumer Reports named First Watch one of the top nine chain restaurants in the U.S., according to a survey of 48,000 diners.

The Florida-based company also owns 55 The Egg & I restaurants across the country.

Read more about the new Sun & Fork restaurant at "The Herald Tribune" now.

Speaking of emerging brands, don’t miss this recent episode of The Barron Report, where Host Paul Barron outlines the brands killin’ in today’s market and why they have that X-factor.

How Naf Naf Grill Plans to Conquer the Middle-Eastern Fast Casual Food Space

The fast casual segment is no longer just reserved for Panera Bread, Chipotle, and Shake Shack.

The better-burger sector gets more saturated every day with multiple chains out there serving up burgers, fries and hot dogs like Smashburger, Five Guys, and Burgerfi.

There are even more pizza concepts for consumers to pick from like Mod Pizza, Blaze Pizza, PizzaRev, &pizza, Uncle Maddio's, and Pieology.

As more of these chains immerse the market, the more intriguing fast casual concepts serving rarer cuisines become.

Today's American foodies are on the lookout to try something new. Enter Middle Eastern cuisine.

The fast casual chain Naf Naf Grill is leading the way in this sector and is bringing Middle Eastern cuisine to the masses.

The menu consists of items like pita sandwiches, falafel, hummus, veggie feasts, and salads– all appealing to vegetarians and vegans.

Although these menu items are similar to those of the Mediterranean cuisine, Naf Naf plans to conquer the Middle-Eastern market in the U.S.

"There’s a lot of competition in the Mediterranean space. You won’t find all kinds of lettuce, feta cheese and olives in our concept. We are known for falafel, chicken shawarma and pita. These three menu items are made fresh in–house every day. Our goal is that consumers fall in love with the freshness, healthiness and flavors that they may not have tried before," said Paul Damico, who was named CEO of Naf Naf Grill in 2017 to "Forbes."

Naf Naf Grill has an aggressive growth plan and intends to achieve it by ramping up franchising in 2019.

In 2017, the company's sales spiked by 58 percent compared to the year before.

Read more about how the chain plans to expand rapidly at "Forbes" now.

Want to know Damico's best advice? We recently interviewed the Naf Naf Grill CEO and former president of Moe’s Southwest Grill to see what tips he had for up and coming operators. Sign up for Foodable+ to watch this video and get more exclusive content!