Emerging Concepts

Become Inspired by the Top Independent Restaurant Groups in America

Recently, Nation’s Restaurant News and Technomic came out with the most influential restaurant groups in America. These represent the largest restaurant groups based on unit count—upscale and fine-dining multi-concept brands walking the fine line between operating as major chains and the independence of, well, independents. 

Let’s explore the top contenders and how they ascended.

Tao Group Hospitality

Noah Tepperberg and Jason Strauss met in high school. They started with school parties and their event planning grew from there to become Strategic Group, a marketing, PR, and special events company. They’re doing the same thing three decades later on a much grander scale. 

They’re first brick-and-mortar was Marquee, a nightclub in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood that brought in 1,200 people every night and continues to evolve today. They joined with Marc Packer and Rich Wolf, of Tao restaurant in Manhattan, who opened Tao Las Vegas in 2005, and Tao Group Hospitality was born. 

Today, they operate 89 locations in the U.S., Gulf States, London, and Singapore. A few of their concepts include pan-Asian Tao, Chinese Hakkasan, Beauty & Essex in partnership with Chef Chris Santos, LAVO Italian restaurants, and more. Their focus is creating remarkable experiences for their guests, whether Michelin-starred restaurants or award-winning nightclubs.

Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises

If you’re looking for the definition of a diversified portfolio, you will find it in Lettuce Entertain You. In 1971, Rich Melman and Jerry A. Orzoff opened R.J. Grunts in Chicago. A few of their many famous guests include Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and many of the Chicago Bears. Within five years, it was followed by Fritz, The Great Gritzbe’s Flying Food Show, Jonathan Livingston Seafood, and Lawrence of Oregano, a hip Italian restaurant.

Their strategy since the beginning has been to find trusted partners to run their concepts, all of which have been created in-house. And, despite their steady expansion, they take their time, structuring deals with landlords and setting themselves up for success before they open. They open one restaurant at a time and make sure each restaurant is working before they open the doors of their next.

Today, they operate 110 units in seven states and Washington, D.C.

Hal Smith Restaurants

Like many in the restaurant industry, Hal Smith started what was to become his restaurant empire by working in one. He worked his way up the restaurant ladder, ultimately becoming chairman and CEO of Steak & Ale Restaurant Corporation, a subsidiary of Pillsbury. He also became CEO of Chili’s, Inc. and Chi-Chi’s, Inc.

In 1992, he founded Hal Smith Restaurants. His concepts include Louie’s Bar & Grill, Charleston’s Restaurant, Mahogany Prime Steakhouse, Red Rock Canyon Grill, Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill, Krispy Kreme, and more. Today, they own 81 units in seven states in the Midwest.

Thompson Hospitality

Warren Thompson’s desire to own a restaurant started at a young age. And he, like others, decided to work from the ground up. The foundation for Thompson Hospitality began with the acquisition of dozens of Big Boy restaurants in 1992, most of which converted to Shoney’s. Today, they operate restaurants, hotels, and contract food services.

Thompson’s current plan centers around efficiency, staying local, penetrating markets, and remaining consistent. A few of their concepts include Makers Union, Wiseguy Pizza, and Matchbox. According to NRN, with 67 units, they are “the largest minority-owned food service and one of the largest retail food and facilities management companies in the country.” 

Independent Restaurants That Excel

It’s clear that what all these extremely successful restaurant owners and operators have in common is a love of the industry, a fearless attitude, an innovative spirit, and a growth strategy that doesn’t wait for the right time.

Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, Thunderdome Restaurant Group, Hillstone Restaurant Group, Cunningham Restaurant Group, Sage Restaurant Concepts, and STARR Restaurant Group, along with the four featured enterprises, make up the top 10 independent restaurant groups in the nation.

At Emerging Concepts, we help leading restaurants and entertainment concepts develop successful expansion strategies. This includes evaluating real estate opportunities across the nation using data analytics, competitor analysis, and extensive target market research. Then, we negotiate with developers and landlords on our client’s behalf. To learn more about our process or to schedule a consultation, contact Emerging Concepts today.


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