NRN names 2009 Hot Concepts! winners

DALLAS (June  30, 2009) Nation’s Restaurant News has selected five innovative young restaurant chains, including a tart frozen yogurt shop, an airport wine bar and an authentic Neapolitan pizza concept, as the winners of its 15th annual Hot Concepts! Awards.

This year’s winners are The Lazy Dog Café, Red Mango USA, Smashburger, Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria and Vino Volo. The 2009 Hot Concepts Awards will be presented during NRN’s 50th Anniversary Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators Conference to be held at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas from Oct. 4-6.

The winning concepts will be featured on Sunday, Oct. 4, during the “A Taste of What’s Hot” Hot Concepts! Celebration Reception, followed the next morning by an interactive panel discussion among the creators of these new concepts. The panel will be moderated by the founding editor of Fast Company magazine, William C. Taylor. The Hot Concepts! Awards program is sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company.

“The Hot Concepts! Award program captures the entrepreneurial spirit that the foodservice industry was built on,” said Tom Larranaga, publisher of Nation’s Restaurant News. “This year’s winners have beaten the odds and overcome a particularly unforgiving business climate with new restaurant concepts that have strong consumer appeal and great potential for future growth.”

The Hot Concepts program was created in 1995 to recognize the industry’s most creative and innovative emerging concepts. Chosen by the editors of NRN, the winners must be seven years old or younger, have a track record of financial success and have clearly defined concepts with strong customer appeal that poise them for future growth.

“One of the strengths of the restaurant industry is a nimble attentiveness to the tastes of guests,” said Chris Lowe, president of Coca-Cola FoodService. “Coke is proud to celebrate the 2009 Hot Concepts! honorees for successfully developing new restaurant concepts that add even more sizzle to the dining scene.”

The 2009 Hot Concepts! honorees are:

The Lazy Dog Café

  • The three-unit Lazy Dog Café was founded in the summer of 2003 by restaurant veteran Thomas Simms, founder of Mimi’s Café, his son, Chris, and chef-partner Gabriel Caliendo. The Westminster, Calif.-based chain features an internationally inspired menu that fuses classic American cuisine with influences from Italy, South America, China and France. The casual-dining concept has an average check of $10 per person at lunch and breakfast and $12 at dinner. Signature menu items include wok-fried calamari and braised lamb shank served in an energetic, non-stuffy dining environment.

 Red Mango USA

  • Red Mango is a fast-growing purveyor of tart frozen yogurt that has been growing in popularity nationwide. Founded in 2002 in South Korea, Red Mango says it is differentiated from other tart frozen yogurt chains by its authentic, all-natural frozen yogurt, which has calcium, protein and live and active cultures that give it a reputation for healthfulness as well as a tangy and creamy flavor profile. Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Red Mango USA’s first store opened in Los Angeles in 2007, and the company plans to open as many as 550 locations across the United States over the next five years, especially in its prime expansion markets of New York and Dallas-Fort Worth. “Despite the economy, we’re experiencing the strongest franchise growth in our company’s history,” said vice president of franchising James Frank.

 Smashburger

  • Smashburger’s first unit opened in May 2008 and has since grown to comprise 13 units in Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota and Texas. The Denver-based chain aims to grow into a 500-unit national brand and lead the “better burger” category of higher-end hamburger concepts. Smashburger distinguishes itself from its competition by making burgers with raw, half-pound or third-pound balls of Certified Angus beef that are “smashed” on the grill to sear the meat and supposedly lock in the juices. Customers can order signature burgers or customize their own by picking a type of bun and toppings. The concept also offers salads, French fries and veggie frites, or flash-fried asparagus, carrots and green beans cut to look like French fries.

 Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria

  • Tutta Bella’s owner, Joe Fugere, is a certified and Naples-trained pizzaiolo who recreates Neapolitan pizza in the Northwest with a dedicated attention to detail and authenticity. The four-unit, Seattle-based pizzeria is one of only a handful of restaurants in the world to receive the Verace Pizza Napolitana certificate that identifies an officially sanctioned purveyor of “true Neapolitan Pizza.” That certification can only be won through obsessive devotion to culinary accuracy and requires the use of specific wood-burning ovens and ingredients like fresh herbs, whole-milk cheese, and San Marzano tomatoes.

 Vino Volo

  • Vino Volo, which cleverly means “Wine Flight” in Italian, gives travelers a place to stop and have a glass of wine at the airport before, after, or in between their flights. Founded in 2004 by chief executive Doug Tomlinson, the high-end chain currently has eight locations open in U.S. airports, and Tomlinsin said he expects the concept to grow to 50 units over the next five years. In addition to wines by the glass, the San Francisco-based concept sells flights of wine consisting of three small pours each. Wines by the glass range from $6 to $45, and flights are priced between $6 and $29. Vino Volo also features a culinary menu of small plates like sandwiches, cured meats and artisanal cheeses. All the units are located in post-security areas of airports and are designed to reduce stress with comfortable trappings like armchairs, wooden bars and ivory walls.