Consumers looking for quick, efficiently served and good-quality food are driving growth for coffee shops, healthy quick-service outlets, artisan bakeries and Mexican burrito stores.
That's one of the key indications from food service analyst Horizons in its latest Ones to Watch survey. The index charts the progress of small chains of between five and 25 units that have shown at least 20% growth over the past three years combined.
The Ones to Watch survey found that the coffee market outperformed the rest of the sector, with emerging coffee brands up 132% in the past 12 months in terms of outlet numbers.
Chains such as Harris + Hoole, which has gone from one to 10 outlets, typify this growth market, along with five-strong Gregg's Moment, nine-strong Taylor Street Baristas, and Lavazza Expression, which currently has three outlets with plans for more than 50 sites in Greater London over the next three years. Meanwhile Soho Coffee has grown from 16 outlets in 2012 to 20 in 2013.
"In many ways coffee shops have benefitted from the economic downturn," commented report author Nicola Knight, Horizons' director of services. "Buying a coffee and a snack is a way of treating yourself relatively cheaply. Consumers have become more discerning about their coffee and the artisan and specialist outlets offer something over and above that of the well-known chains."
Healthy quick service is another growth area, according to Horizons, with brands such as sandwich bar operator Abokado, which now has 13 outlets, making it one of the fastest-growing Ones to Watch brands. Owned by Kings Park Capital, Abokado aims to have 24 outlets by the end of 2013.
Other healthy take-away groups included in the Ones to Watch survey are: Tossed, which has grown to 10 sites; and the five-strong Planet Organic and Pod, which currently has 23 outlets and plans to grow to 30 this year.
Casual-dining brands such as Bill's and Leon have also shown growth, as well as artisan bakeries such as Benugo, which currently has 10 sites and an aims to double its estate this year, and pâtisserie-café chain Apostrophe, which has 21 sites and another three planned before the end of March, with a long-term target of 50.
Mexican food is one of the recent success stories with overall growth of around 10% a year. Concepts on the Ones to Watch list include Chipotle Mexican Grill in the top spot as one of the fastest-growing brands, as well as El Mexicana, which plans to open 10 new restaurants as in 2013, Chilango and Freebirds World Burrito.
Ones to Watch has identified a growing trend for "diffusion" brands, where well-known operators launch an alternative format, trading heavily on the success of the original brand but adapting it for different sites. Examples include Chimi's Burrito Bar, a burrito version of the fast-growing Chimchanga Mexican brand; Ping Pong Now, a version of Ping Pong aimed at transport hubs; the Real Greek, which is looking to trial smaller units or kiosks; and Wildwood Kitchen, a stripped back format of Wildwood with a simplified menu.
"These diffusion brands are often targeted at particular audiences or locations, such as transport hubs or mobile units," Knight said.
"They are a great way of reaching a particular audience and of making the most of smaller sites. I think we will see more of these in the future as they are versatile, relatively cheap to operate and don't incur the massive start-up costs of opening a larger outlet, " she added.