Photo:Melting Pot owners Mark and Arlene Johnston founded Burger 21.
Florida's chain gang: Restaurant concepts are growing
While McDonald’s is deciding whether to turn back to basics or into the espresso lane, plenty of Florida dreamers are fast-forwarding into burgers, old favorites and new, the main course of the next generation of chains.
The buzz of the last decade has been provided by independent chefs and restaurateurs with one-of-a-kind restaurants. Yet a number of smart operators still work at turning a simple idea, a standard process or a single chef’s name and recipes into a chain.
They may not be rustically artisan, but the new Florida chains are thoroughly modern: Limited menus, small plates, handmade, with quirky flavors and nods to health and local providers as well. Their sweet spot is meals that cost around $8 to $15.
Following are some growing chains, and there are more concepts out there simmering in the minds of restaurateurs for whom one is not enough. How big should they dream? Ask the Jacksonville firefighters who cooked up Firehouse Subs — the answer is now more than 860.
Invented by the Melting Pot group, Burger 21 now has nine Florida locations plus units in six other states, serving beef, chicken, seafood and veggie burgers plus a rainbow of shakes.
The chef brothers Matthew and David Medure of Jacksonville bring their gourmet tricks, serving bananas Foster milkshakes, truffle fries and old-fashioned burgers (and one topped with cilantro cream as well). In barely a year, there are two more and a traveling food truck.
Tucker Duke’s Lunchbox
North Florida chef Brian Cartenuto’s Tucker Duke’s Lunchbox has dragged the burger menu through every Southern-fried joke possible to create a menu with Reuben fritters and burgers, including one with jalapeno cream cheese. He now has three locations.
At Burger Fi, the decor is aluminum chairs and bare wood, and the menu is burgers, burgers and burgers, including the Breakfast All Day Burger — cheeseburger, bacon, fried egg, maple syrup and hash browns — for $7.57 Or a veggie burger or brisket. Plus Kobe hot dogs, quinoa and frozen custard — cool enough to grow to more than 70 locations from Delray Beach.
Square 1 Burgers & Bar
A bright idea from Bella’s Italian Cafe in Tampa, Square 1 is now up to eight locations from Gainesville to Fort Myers and burgers of turkey, buffalo, lamb and Kobe beef, with feta, poblano and fried dill pickles.
Chain success is not limited to traditional favorites or all- American flavors. The lowly hot dog has had great success at Los Perros in seven locations across south Florida, where it wears Colombian dressing, which can include mozzarella cheese or diced potatoes. Also on the menu: Quail eggs.
Starting out in an old school bus parked in an unpaved parking lot, Tampa’s Taco Bus now has six fixed locations around Tampa Bay and a devoted following for its tacos and monster burritos.
The booming interest in Greek food, from light salads and skewers to heartier moussaka and souvlaki, has produced a successful chain — Little Greek, which began in Palm Harbor. Ten years later, there are 19 locations in Florida, Arkansas and Texas.
Orlando’s Hawkers, a clever parlay of skewers, banh mi sliders and Singaporean street food with craft beer, wowed Jacksonville last year and is ready to open a third location in St. Petersburg.
Maple Street Biscuits Co.
Nothing says lovin’ like a biscuit, with or without sausage gravy, and the Jacksonville guys have already opened their fifth location.
4 Rivers Smokehouse
No secret that barbecue is a favorite of Floridians and chain operators. Still, the growth of 4 Rivers is impressive. Winter Park’s John Rivers has opened 10 locations in five years.
The health conscious line up to mix and match a bowl full of faves — veggie quinoas and romaine-spinach salad topped with brussels sprouts and coconut caulifower, barbecued chicken and chia seed teriyaki tofu and maybe cucumber jalapeño dressing. Prices range from $7.45 to $9.95. Coldpressed fruit juices and almond milk are available. After barely six months in Tampa, the owners have two new two-fer locations, pairing Fresh Kitchen with another of their concepts, Daily Eats, in St. Petersburg and Sarasota.
Fitlife Foods began packing convenience and weightloss nutrition in precooked, take-home meals for harried marathoners in 2011 and now has seven locations around Tampa. Shoppers can load up on sweet potato pancakes and frittatas to turkey meatloaf or sriracha chicken bowls, many from 160 to 700 calories and priced from $4.95 to $12.95 for the likes of miso-glazed salmon.