Chipotle 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.
Cornbread, Farm To Soul
- Founders: Adenah Bayoh and Zadie Smith
- HQ: Irvington, N.J.
- Menu focus: Farm-to-table soul food
- Units: 3
- Average check: $25-$30 per person
- Ideal unit size: 2,000 square feet
Adenah Bayoh escaped civil war in Liberia at the age of 13 to come to the United States. Inspired by her grandmother who owned a restaurant, she became an IHOP franchisee in Irvington, N.J., at the age of 27. She now owns four IHOP units and, in 2017, with co-founder Zadie Smith, launched Cornbread, a fast-casual soul food concept.
“When I became an IHOP franchisee, one of the common themes I saw was that breakfast is very different for different cultures,” Bayho says. “I’d have people in my community, who were so supportive of what I was doing, coming in asking for grits, or fried catfish, or chicken and waffles. Those types of items weren’t part of our menu and, as a franchisee, I couldn’t add them. But I saw that this was something the community needed. People wanted good, authentic soul food done in a casual, comfortable way. That became the goal for Cornbread. But we also wanted to create a space with women at the forefront. We’re women-founded. All of our stores are run by women. Our CFO is a woman. I’m very proud of that and it’s something we’ll continue to nurture as we grow.”
The first Cornbread, opened in Maplewood, N.J. in late 2017, provided proof of concept with lines routinely out the door, Bayoh says. Soon after, the duo signed a deal to develop within Walmart stores, opening three units in as many months. But then the pandemic hit.
“We closed the Walmart stores and changed our strategy,” Bayoh notes. “We’d learned that our preference is to have our own brick-and-mortar units. In January 2021, we opened a second store, in Newark, N.J. This year, we opened our third unit, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a fourth will open by the end of the year in Montclair, N.J. Over the next five years, we’re targeting 20 stores and $50 million in revenues.”
As the concept continues to refine its prototype, Bayoh says 2,000 square feet seems the ideal unit size. The new Brooklyn location is an outlier at 3,500 square feet. With that market slated for three additional Cornbread units in 2024, it includes a commissary kitchen that will support growth. The new Brooklyn store, she adds, also does more dine-in business than the others. “It’s such a gorgeous store. People come in and want to stay and enjoy the experience,” she says.
The experience includes a menu of soul food classics, such as catfish, chicken, ribs, collard greens, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, black-eyed peas, and, of course, fresh-baked cornbread. In-store orders are placed via self-order kiosks or at the counter, assembled and customized via a tray-line model, and picked up at the end of the counter. Interiors are designed to feel cozy and comfortable, and to pay homage to Black culture and excellence.