David Conklin, chief development officer, Golden Corral Corp. Images courtesy of Homeward KitchenDavid Conklin, chief development officer, Golden Corral Corp. Images courtesy of Homeward KitchenChipotle Mexican Grill, Five Guys, Panera Bread, QDOBA Mexican Eats — those are some of the most familiar names and groundbreaking concepts in the fast-casual segment that continue to set the pace in the category they helped define. But in the collective shadow of such Goliaths, there’s a slew of up-and-coming concepts — some very new, some newly invigorated and primed for expansion — keeping the category fresh, dynamic and more diverse than ever.

Their menus range from classic comfort and soul foods to ethnic and fusion cuisines, plant-forward, diet-friendly and indulgent vegan. Their founders include entrepreneurial immigrants, opportunity-spotting friends and family members, and even corporate chains seeking new avenues for growth. But as different as they may be, they’re all driven to satisfy consumer appetites for high-quality, flavorful foods, customization, speed and convenience while at the same time delivering unique brand experiences.

Homeward Kitchen

  • Founder: Golden Corral Corp.
  • HQ: Raleigh, N.C.
  • Menu focus: Classic comfort foods
  • Units: 1 under construction
  • Average check: TBD
  • Ideal unit size: 3,100 square feet

fast casual homeward homeward kitchen entryFifty-year-old, all-you-can-eat buffet segment leader Golden Corral is expanding into fast-casual territory with a new concept dubbed Homeward Kitchen. Set to debut by the end of this year in Southern Pines, N.C., Homeward Kitchen. will offer some of the buffet chain’s staples, such as pot roast, fried chicken, meatloaf and banana pudding, as well as new items, including a Cajun mac-and-cheese bowl and fried buttermilk chicken sandwiches in a variety of on-trend flavor options.

“Golden Corral knows comfort food better than anyone out there. We’ll continue to grow the buffet side of our business, but guests are telling us they want homestyle comfort foods in more convenient ways, as well. Homeward Kitchen is going to allow us to reach new guests in more and smaller markets, as well as be another option for long-time guests,” notes David Conklin, the chain’s chief development officer. “It’s a different experience, one that’s making high-quality comfort food a lot more accessible.”

While being brought to market by Golden Corral, Homeward Kitchen has been designed as a separate, stand-alone brand, Conklin notes. The first unit’s footprint, a former Chick-fil-A unit, is 4,000 square feet but future stores will average 3,100 square feet with combined indoor and outdoor seating for 75.

Homeward Kitchen offers multiple ways in which to engage with the brand. “We wanted to let guests take control of their experience,” Conklin says. “They can get great hospitality by going to the front counter for personal service, or skip the line, grab a table and place their order on their phone. They can order ahead and pick-up in-store or at the drive-thru, or they can get third-party delivery. It’s designed to meet guests where they are.”

The new prototype is designed to support key brand messaging around homestyle cooking and a modern expression of kitchen. “Guests can see back into the kitchen and the fresh preparation. And there are a lot of design touches that convey the idea of a modern home kitchen, from cabinetry to a kitchen-island-style communal table to lighting,” Conklin says. “Even from the exterior, the design evokes feelings of home. We added a bay window, for instance, and a gabled roof element.”

Initial markets targeted for corporate development are North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. “Growth after that will be primarily via franchisees,” Conklin says. “We need to get the first few open and then look at opportunities for both existing and new franchisees. We’ve got the potential for hundreds of locations, ultimately spreading out across the rest of the country, as well.”