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Lunchbox presents the Top 30 Hottest Restaurant Brands 2023 industry list, spotlighting the restaurant brands, and their people, who are setting trends and fostering vibrant communities. This inaugural list highlights the top players that are redefining what it means to be a leading brand in the space.
Each of these restaurant brands and frontrunners are creating the playbook across visual identity, digital experience, and community building. From enterprise brands backed by visionary executives, to midsize restaurants that are pioneered by brand champions esteemed with building the blueprint for new concepts to come — here are our Top 30 Hottest Restaurant Brands 2023 and their frontrunners.
**This list is organized alphabetically — numbers are not indicative of any particular ranking.
THE TOP 30 LINEUP
&Pizza is a critically acclaimed fast-casual pizza concept that is set out to create a “different kind of pizza shop," reflecting the culture and the people of its neighborhoods. Founded in 2012 in Washington D.C.’s historic H Street NE corridor, &Pizza has gained notoriety for their delicious pizzas, employee-first environment, and cult-like beloved brand.
Frontrunner: Michael Lastoria, Co-Founder & CEO
Michael Lastoria is a fair wage fighter, building a strong brand centered around great pizza and even better community — keying the phrase “there is no labor shortage, there's a wage shortage.”
&Vested | Co-Founder
JWalk | Co-Founder
Innovation Ads | Co-Founder & CEO
Born in 2013 on Melrose Place, Alfred has garnered its cult following through its stylish ambiance, innovative guest loyalty, and groundbreaking coffee and tea offerings. Alfred builds community through their wide span of “instagrammable” locations – from Los Angeles, Austin, Tokyo, and beyond.
Frontrunner: Joshua Zad, Founder & CEO
A true innovator and oat milk connoisseur, Josh Zad emphasized both community and design on his journey to popularize the Alfred brand. Zad is credited with growing Alfred from its original Melrose location in Los Angeles to a global sensation – prioritizing aesthetic, convenience, and taste.
Calidad Beer | Founder & CEO
03. BIG CHICKEN
Established in 2018, Big Chicken combines the cherished flavors of basketball icon Shaquille O’Neal’s childhood with a modern twist – from crispy chicken sandwiches to youthful treats like ice cream shakes, and beyond. The quick-service chain supports each community where they operate, committed to provide assistance to children, education, and feeding the hungry.
Frontrunner: Josh Halpern, CEO
Josh Halpern is an esteemed “builder” of food brands and the people behind them. He brings his experience as a leader for multiple brands to help grow Big Chicken worldwide, taking “Big Flavor, Big Food, Big Fun” to the next level.
Beer Park | CEO
Sweat Capital LLC | Founder
04. BLAZE PIZZA
Blaze Pizza is a California-based fast-casual restaurant founded in 2011 that serves up mouth-watering pizza made from their fresh, in-house dough. With an emphasis on the “Here and now,” Blaze builds impactful brand loyalty across their locations throughout the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.
Frontrunner: Sonja Tilki, VP of Marketing
Sonja Tilki is the frontrunner for Blaze Pizza’s loyal following – from the brand’s hundreds of thousands of followers across social media platforms, to its Back to School campaign celebrating students and teachers by rolling out value bundles, free Cheesy Bread for school employees, and more.
Subway | VP of Brand Voice
Tracy Locke | Account Supervisor
Source Marketing | Director
05. BODEGA TAQUERIA
Established in 2014, Bodega Taqueria y Tequila is an iconic South Florida brand known for its Mexican street food and vibrant nightlife. With seven locations boasting extensive menus that blend traditional favorites and innovative creations, Bodega Taqueria has gained nationwide acclaim as a premier culinary and entertainment destination, building a cult-like following anywhere they take the brand.
Frontrunner: Samantha Rosen, VP of Brand
Samantha Rosen has led Bodega Taqueria’s creative nature, from hosting white-out parties at various restaurant locations, to partnering with the Miami Heat’s mascot Burnie for a big game, and everything in between.
Menin Hospitality | Brand Director
The One Group | Events, Catering, and Marketing
CAVA goes beyond the food, specializing in affordable Mediterranean dishes featuring customizable salads, pitas, juices, dressings, and more. Generosity is at the core of CAVA's philosophy by building long-term career plans for their team members, feeding their communities, and sponsoring local nonprofits.
Frontrunner: Darlene Yang, VP of Brand & Marketing
The frontrunner for CAVA’s massive success worldwide, Darlene Yang is responsible for jaw-dropping campaigns such as ringing the New York Stock Exchange trading floor bell, and partnering with distinguished influencers like Emma Chamberlain.
TOMS | Senior Director, Global Brand Marketing
Starbucks | Senior Brand Manager
Johnson & Johnson | Associate Marketing Manager
07. CHA CHA MATCHA
Cha Cha Matcha opened its first location in the heart of NYC as an alternative to artisanal coffee culture and the exaggerated energy drink climate. A unique caffeine experience that goes beyond the ordinary, Cha Cha Matcha delivers up a custom branded experience, all while building a community that goes unmatched.
Frontrunner: Jay Gujjar, CEO
Jay Gujjar is instrumental in Cha Cha Matcha’s growth, taking the once small bi-coastal store to a nationally and internationally recognized brand. With experience leading at Sweetgreen and Blue Bottle Coffee, Gujjar expanded Cha Cha’s retail stores post-Covid across New York and Los Angeles.
Blue Bottle Coffee | VP & Head of North America
Sweetgreen | Director of Operations, New York
08. CLEAN JUICE
Most recently a recipient of Newsweek and Statista Inc.’s America’s Favorite Restaurant Chains 2023 award, Clean Juice boasts over one hundred locations worldwide, delivering healthy smoothies, juices, and bites. Centered around building healthy communities, Clean Juice partners with Make An Impact Foundation, creating a Quarters 4 Kids program aimed at supporting education for communities in need. From best-in-class catering for their guests, to custom loyalty programs and everything in between, Clean Juice is leading the space with a focus on their communities.
Frontrunner: Joanna Klee, VP of Marketing
The frontrunner for Clean Juice’s marketing endeavors, Joanna Klee takes advantage of the latest trends to generate the utmost brand engagement, leading activations like Clean Juice’s National Smoothie Week, engaging their loyal following to be a part of the process and create their own unique smoothies.
Athleta | Community Manager
Guardian Building Products Distribution | Director of Marketing
Kimberly-Clark | Regional Platform Marketing Leader
09. CRUMBL COOKIES
Developing the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe was integral to Crumbl’s success. Upon opening their first storefront in Utah in 2017, Crumbl Cookies quickly became a leading brand with a loyal following. From exclusively serving fresh milk and chocolate chip cookies for takeout and delivery, to expanding their batch flavors with high-quality ingredients for curbside pickup and more, Crumbl Cookies are widely recognized for their iconic pink packaging, mouth watering treats, and newly rolled out flavors.
Frontrunner: Jason McGowan, Founder & CEO
As Crumbl’s Founder & CEO, Jason McGown prioritizes partnership and effective communication among the corporate team, partners, and employees. A true “doer,” Jason describes his business as a “rocket with insane amounts of upward trajectory, in need of being built, ﬁne-tuned and repaired while in orbit.”
Ancestry | Director of Product, Mobile
i.TV | Chief Product Officer
Hangtime Inc. | Chief Product Officer & Co-Founder
Once a small food stand in an East Hollywood parking lot, Dave’s Hot Chicken is widely acclaimed for serving the juiciest and most tender chicken imaginable with each piece topped with the brand’s signature mix of spices – from No Spice to “The Reaper.” With a cult following across the U.S., Canada, UAE, and Qatar, the brand rose to fame quickly with a captivating origin story and community building initiatives across social media.
Frontrunner: Brad Haley, Chief Marketing Officer
Boasting almost one million loyal followers across platforms, Brad Haley leads Dave’s Hot Chicken’s top tier partnerships with esteemed brands like DoorDash and more. Brad was recently named as one of the top 50 Power Players in the communications field by PRWeek and one of the 50 Most Daring Entrepreneurs by Entrepreneur Magazine.
Dave’s Hot Chicken | Marketing Consultant
IHOP | Chief Marketing Officer
11. DOG HAUS
Founded by three friends in Pasadena, California in 2010, Dog Haus generates national acclaim for its gourmet, all-beef signature dogs served on grilled King’s Hawaiian rolls. Labeled as a “craft casual,” the breakout brand has built their cult fan base around their custom creations, laid-back atmosphere, and community efforts.
Frontrunner: Christopher Ramirez, EVP of Marketing
Instrumental in developing The Absolute Brands, Christopher Ramirez runs point on developing Dog Haus’ high-performing creative, marketing, and technology teams — from promoting the brand’s special, limited-edition dogs, to collaborations with esteemed chefs in the field.
The Absolute Brands | EVP of Marketing
Cjr03 | Founder & Managing Director
Artime Group | Vice President
As a chef driven concept, Eggslut was founded in 2011 delivering a menu that is a “balance of comfort and innovation”. With locations across Los Angeles, Las Vegas, United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and more, Eggslut delivers consistent excellence across the board — from sandwiches and specialty offerings, to branding, and everything in between.
Frontrunner: Alvin Cailan, Owner & Chef
Chef, author, and television host, Alvin Cailan is one of the most high-profile craftsmen in the nation’s Filipino food movement – from hosting The Burger Show on First We Feast, to perfecting Eggslut’s highly followed egg sandwiches.
Umami Burger | Head Chef
13. FIREHOUSE SUBS
Founded in Jacksonville, Florida in 1994 by two brothers and former firefighters, Firehouse Subs has gained quick popularity as an American fast-food chain renowned for its delicious, firefighter-inspired sandwiches. Beyond the menu offerings, the brand shares its dedication to public safety through their philanthropic endeavors with the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation.
Frontrunner: Melissa-Jayne Aston, EVP of Marketing
Melissa-Jayne Aston masterminds Firehouse Subs’ captivating and heartfelt marketing campaigns, speaking to their mission from every angle. Melissa-Jayne is responsible for a brand that heavily grants disaster reliefs, and gives back to their community.
Danaher Corporation | Marketing Manager
14. ILLEGAL PETE’S
Colorado-based restaurant concept, Illegal Pete's has the mission to step outside the norm, offering delicious and flavor-packed Mexican-inspired cuisine including burritos, tacos, and bowls, along with a cool-kids atmosphere and a focus on supporting local artists and musicians. The brand has built a cult-following surrounding their rich food, community efforts, experiential marketing.
Frontrunner: Pete Turner, Founder & President
Spurred by the vision of owning his own restaurant since high school, Pete Turner opened the Illegal Pete’s only two years after graduating college. Pete emphasizes his core values throughout building his brand, and encourages others not only to constantly learn, but to appreciate the now.
Learn more about Illegal Pete’s community efforts.
15. ISLAND FIN POKE
Founded in 2016, Island Fin Poké is a quick-casual restaurant that specializes in delivering a glimpse of the Hawaiian islands with its fresh and customizable poké bowls. With a focus on sustainability and quality ingredients, they cook up a vibrant and flavorful customer experience inspired by the relaxing, coastal lifestyle. The brand goes beyond the food, building community across each location.
Frontrunner: Mark Setterington, Co-Founder & CEO
Mark Setterington consistently embraces Island Fin Poké’s rich family culture – from his leadership principles that aim to build community, to delivering a best-in-class custom experience for his guests on-premise and off.
Lev Restaurant Group | VP of Operations
Cactus Restaurants | Owner
Margaritaville | Regional General Manager
Bahama Breeze | General Manager
16. JUST SALAD
With a commitment to make everyday health and sustainability possible, Just Salad uses intentional ingredients that are fresh and locally sourced, to deliver healthy and delicious salads, wraps, and bowls. With a focus on building a sustainable community, the brand prioritizes eco-friendly practices with their $1 reusable bowl program, Annual Impact Report, and more, to promote a greener future.
Frontrunner: Nick Kenner, Founder & CEO
By staying committed to his fundamental values of affordability, health-consciousness, and quality, Nick Kenner has expanded the Just Salad brand to nearly 40 global locations since its first restaurant in 2006, ensuring customers can enjoy a welcoming atmosphere and environmentally sustainable practices.
17. MELLOW MUSHROOM
Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers is an eclectic pizza restaurant brand that’s been operating for over 40 years, known for its funky brand, unique locations, and fresh stone-baked pizzas. With a focus on art, music, and vibrant flavors, Mellow Mushroom delivers a strongly branded in-store and off-premise experience that engages all pizza enthusiasts.
18. MILK BAR
From their signature cake truffles to cookies and pies, Milk Bar is a popular dessert shop known for its innovative and nostalgic sweet treats. With a unique and playful approach to baking, Milk Bar delights guests with their creative flavor combinations, whimsical presentation, and custom branded experience, making it a go-to destination for indulgent desserts.
Frontrunner: Renee Fuller, VP of Marketing
Renee Fuller has successfully managed and directed comprehensive marketing and communications efforts for Milk Bar with her expertise in consumer insights and cross-functional leadership. She has effectively guided PR, social media, and design/content teams to develop compelling CPG marketing initiatives in alignment with the Milk Bar brand.
SC Johnson Lifestyle Brands | Director of Shopper Marketing
REBBL | Sr. Brand Manager
The Hershey Company | Sr. Manager of Customer Marketing
Plant Power Fast Food is a vegan fast-food restaurant dedicated to providing delicious and sustainable plant-based alternatives to classic favorites like burgers, fries, and milkshakes. With a focus on health, compassion, and environmental responsibility, Plant Power Fast Food offers a guilt-free and flavorful experience for foodies seeking cruelty-free and planet-friendly options. Going even beyond the food and environmental efforts, the brand delivers a custom guest experience, growing their cult-like following through loyalty programs, and more.
Frontrunner: Zach Vouga, Co-Founder & President
As the ambitious entrepreneur and Co-Founder of Plant Power Fast Food, Zach Vouga pioneers the fast-food venture aiming to be the vegan equivalent of McDonald's. With his initial successful launch in San Diego in 2016 and subsequent growth to food truck initiatives and multiple brick-and-mortar locations, Vouga is the brains behind the brand’s quick growth.
Donna Jean | Co-Founder, General Partner
Evolution Fast Food | General Manager
Founded in 1971, Schlotzsky's is a renowned sandwich chain that boasts signature oven-baked sandwiches, gourmet pizzas, and freshly made salads. With a commitment to using high-quality ingredients and unique flavors, Schlotzsky's offers a diverse menu and guest loyalty offerings that keep this brand at the forefront of growth.
Frontrunner: William Armstrong, Chief Brand Officer
Equipped with an impressive track record of operational excellence, William Armstrong is a driven professional with a wealth of experience in strategic marketing, business development, and project management.
Wendy’s | Head of International Operations
McDonald’s | VP and General Manager
With their first location planted along the cobblestone streets of Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market, Starbucks has since grown to become a globally recognized coffeehouse chain known for its wide range of specialty coffee drinks and branding that promotes community and connection. With a commitment to ethically sourcing high-quality coffee beans and a focus on sustainability, Starbucks provides a premium coffee experience while positively impacting the communities it serves.
Frontrunner: Brady Brewer, Chief Marketing Officer
Brady Brewer, an accomplished leader with over 2 decades of experience at Starbucks, brings his extensive experience in operations, marketing, and product management. Brady's expertise has helped shape the modern Starbucks experience, specifically in global leadership positions such as in Starbucks Japan, while his passion for coffee and commitment to sustainability has taken him on meaningful journeys to coffee farms worldwide.
Starbucks | Senior VP of Digital Customer Experience
Starbucks | COO of Starbucks Japan
This California-based chef driven restaurant chain specializes in serving delicious and customizable poke bowls made with sustainable, responsibly sourced ingredients. With a commitment to quality and flavor and a brand that invests into its communities, Sweetfin offers a fresh and innovative take on traditional Hawaiian poke, providing customers with a vibrant experience.
Frontrunner: Alan Nathan, Co-Founder & CEO
Alan Nathan is the Co-Founder and CEO of Sweetfin, a role he took on throughout a successful career as an entrepreneur. With his leadership, Sweetfin has expanded its presence and gained recognition as a leading poke bowl restaurant chain.
Choice Hospitality Group | Founder & CEO
Star Group Management | Co-Founder & CEO
Committed to serving delicious, healthy, and sustainable food, Sweetgreen embodies seasonality and culinary creativity. Sweetgreen offers a menu of customizable salads, grain bowls, and warm bowls, providing nourishing and flavorful options that promote a healthier lifestyle. Cultivating an innovative brand, Sweetgreen pushes the needle forward with their outpost offerings, commitment to becoming carbon neutral by the end of 2027, commitment to the Better Chicken Commitment, etc.
Frontrunner: Nathaniel Ru, Co-Founder & CMO
Nathaniel Ru is dedicated to keeping Sweetgreen local all while continuing the brand’s national expansion. Named as one of the Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company and one of Forbes’ Next 50 CMO’s, Nathaniel continues to amplify Sweetgreen’s mission with a pulse on brand building that goes unmatched.
24. TACO BELL
Founded in 1962 in California, Taco Bell has grown to be an American multinational chain that offers Mexican-inspired dishes, including tacos, burritos, and quesadillas. With a focus on bold flavors, affordability, and innovation, Taco Bell has become a popular destination for guests seeking a quick and tasty Tex-Mex experience with rewards that build brand loyalists, in-house and off-premise.
Frontrunner: Taylor Montgomery, Chief Marketing Officer
With over 7 years of experience with Taco Bell, Taylor Montgomery brings hands on experience in brand strategy, digital marketing, and creative campaign development. With a strong track record of driving growth and innovation, Taylor has successfully led marketing initiatives including promoting the liberation of the popular coined phrase “Taco Tuesday.”
Taco Bell | VP of Brand Marketing
Senior Brand Manager | Procter & Gamble
Born out of a 1963 “combi” bus in 2006 in Yucatán, Tacombi is a vibrant Mexican taqueria with locations across New York, Washington DC, and Miami, serving up authentic tacos made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. With a lively atmosphere inspired by the streets of Mexico, Tacombi offers a dining experience backed by Mexican hospitality that turns customers into communities. Giving back to the community, Tacombi delivers food accessibility, education, and employment through their community kitchen that prepares and distributes meals to those who need them.
Frontrunner: Dario Wolos, Founder & CEO
Dario Wolos is a dedicated and passionate entrepreneur with a deep appreciation for Mexican culture and cuisine. Dario's vision of bringing authentic street tacos to New York City and building communities, has resulted in the popularity and expansion of Tacombi's vibrant taquerias.
26. THE CRACK SHACK
The Crack Shack offers high-quality, chef-driven comfort food centered around classic comfort food. With a focus on using locally sourced ingredients and providing a fun and welcoming atmosphere, The Crack Shack delivers innovative chicken sandwiches with catering, rewards, and gift card offerings that build brand loyalists.
Frontrunner: Michael Rosen, Co-Founder & CEO
The Crack Shack is a culinary venture born out of Co-Founder and CEO Michael Rosen's deep passion for chicken and breakfast-inspired cuisine. With a focus on exceptional ingredients, Michael has dedicated himself to delivering the finest quality across all aspects of his brand.
Context Capital Management, LLC | Principal
Juniper and Ivy | Founder & Owner
OppenheimerFunds | President of Rochester Division
27. THE SALTY
Opening their first doors in Miami in 2014, The Salty was born as an artisanal donut shop, with explosive growth from their delicious offerings and innovative approach to cultivating communities. The Salty crafts unique and indulgent baked treats and coffee from scratch using high-quality, locally sourced ingredients. With their commitment to creativity and flavors, The Salty attracts donut and coffee lovers from near and far by delivering an unmatched branded experience.
Frontrunner: Danny Pizarro, Chief Marketing Officer
Danny Pizarro is a true brand and technology mogul – upon joining his family’s business as Chief Marketing Officer, the brand has evolved to 9 locations with 6 additional opening up by end of year. Pizarro is responsible for front-lining plans to build a lifestyle brand surrounding the The Salty experience.
8base | Marketing Manager
Gettie | Founder, Head of Product
Mixstir | Founder
28. TORCHY’S TACOS
Opening their first brick-and-mortar in Austin, Texas with now over 90 locations, Torchy's Tacos serves up the tastiest tacos, quesos, and margaritas around. Inspired by local and international cuisines, Torchy’s “Taco of the Month” promotions turn guests into brand loyalists year-round. With a focus on building communities, Torchy’s delivers a fully branded and custom experience for their guests.
Frontrunner: Kathleen VanDervort, VP of Marketing
Equipped with a background of invaluable experience, Kathleen VanDervort holds an expertise in marketing strategy, and executing strong brand and digital campaigns. From promoting the brand’s popular mascot “Torchy,” to fostering the brand’s philanthropic partners such as the Make a Wish Foundation, MD Anderson, and Phoenix House, Kathleen dominates as a leader in the marketing sector.
BigCommerce | Senior Manager, Digital Marketing
E. & J. Gallo Winery | Senior Manager, Digital Marketing
L’Oreal | Director of Retail Marketing
29. WING IT ON!
Since they stepped onto the scene in 2011, Wing It On! has served up delicious and flavor-packed wings, made with fresh ingredients, a variety of signature sauces, and a digital experience that keeps guests coming back for more. With their emphasis on quality, taste, and an engaging experience, Wing It On! builds loyalty with their guests at every stage.
Frontrunner: Matt Ensero, Founder & President
From working the sandwich line at Subway as a young teenager, to launching the first Wing It On! location in Waterbury, Matt Ensero is defined by his transparent and goal-oriented leadership style. Matt has since grown the brand across 12 states, building a loyal following along the way.
Craveworthy Brands | Brand President
Suburban Inc. | Marketing & Sales Manager
Straight A Supply Co. | Co-Founder & CEO
30. WOW BAO
Being one of the most innovative brands in the space, Wow Bao delivers bold Asian cuisine flavors with their famous bao buns. Building a cult-like following that has led to explosive growth with 600+ locations across America, Wow Bao builds brand loyalists with their NFT-based loyalty programs that creates an engaging experience for their guests.
Frontrunner: Maureen Chen, Director of Marketing
Specializing in Demand Generation, marketing strategy, and social media engagement, Maureen Chen propels Wow Bao’s marketing initiatives towards the future. With campaigns such as music festival giveaways, memorable appearances at the annual National Restaurant Association Show, monthly flavor spotlights, and more, Maureen proves to be a leader in building brand loyalty.
Francesca’s Restaurant Group | Head of Marketing
Museum of Science and History | Director of Marketing
National Restaurant Association | Director of Marketing
A THANK YOU TO THE VISIONARIES
From eclectic pizza concepts inspired off of its neighborhoods, to donut shops that bake in community to everything they do — our Top 30 Hottest Restaurant Brands are redefining what it means to be a leading brand and thought-leader in the space.
These brands inspire new concepts to enter the industry, creating the playbook to what it means to be a leader across visual identity, digital experience, and community building. Cheers to each of these restaurant brands and their frontrunners for being a north star for the industry.
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