As a perceived little sibling to New York City, Boston sometimes gets overshadowed by the Big Apple, especially when it comes to culinary respect. But Boston holds its own on the restaurant scene, with renowned chefs like Ming Tsai, Barbara Lynch, Ana Sortun, and Tony Maws giving the area serious culinary credibility.
The fast-casual scene in Boston, meanwhile, hasn’t quite garnered the reputation of cities like New York—but that might soon change. Several homegrown fast-casual brands have taken off in the Boston area in recent years, and could have the legs to break out on the national stage. Some, in fact, already have.
We’ll be honoring those exciting fast-casual brands at QSR’s free Boston Fast Casual Meet Up on August 23. For now, check out the 12 Boston-based fast casuals that we think have the most exciting growth potential.
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Having spent some time in Silicon Valley, Mike Kamio was well familiar with the delicious potential of Mission-style burritos. But when he moved to Boston, he discovered that the area sorely lacked a comparable fresh-Mex option. So he opened the first Anna’s Taqueria in 1995, and has since expanded the concept to eight locations across the Boston area. Click here to read more from our recent Ones to Watch on Anna’s.
The fast-casual pizza scene may seem crowded, but Oath sets itself apart by sourcing sustainable and ethically sourced ingredients; it’s staked its claim as the first pizza chain to be granted certified humane approval. Crusts are hand-stretched, then grilled and seared in avocado oil for extra crispness. Having originated in nearby Nantucket, Oath opened six locations in and around Boston, and has since expanded into New York and Washington, D.C. It also just announced a strategic partnership with Aramark, which has invested in the brand and plans to help it expand in nontraditional locations like college campuses, hospitals, and arenas.
Few fast casuals embody menu transparency as well as Clover Food Lab, a vegetarian concept that’s grown to 12 locations throughout the Boston area. The brand’s recipe development process is open to the public, and it freely discusses menu mix and sourcing strategies on its website. The company's founder, MIT material science graduate and Harvard MBA Ayr Muir, will even detail Clover's mistakes on the website, like the time he shared about OK’ing the wrong lighting fixture at a new location. Click here to read about Clover's strategy for serving alternative meats.
Founders Patrick Lynch and Ali Fong created Bon Me as part of a food-truck competition in 2010. They were tasked with designing a business plan, creating a video about the concept, and then preparing dishes for a 500-person taste test—and they emerged victorious. Bon Me, which specializes in fresh Southeast Asian dishes developed by Culinary Institute of America graduate Fong, was among the first food trucks to hit the streets of Boston when it launched in 2011, and has since grown to seven brick-and-mortar locations along with several trucks and carts. Learn more about Bon Me in last year's Ones to Watch profile on the brand.
It’s a family affair at Mei Mei, a food truck launched by siblings Andrew, Margaret, and Irene Li that has since expanded to a storefront near Boston University. The restaurant, which initially launched with a hybrid table-service model but has since switched to all counter service, dishes Chinese-American fare developed by Irene, including scallion pancake sandwiches and dumplings. The siblings also own Pantry at Mei Mei, which makes and bottles sauces.
A self-described “modern fast-food burger restaurant with old school sensibilities,” Tasty Burger first opened near the famed Fenway Park—home of the Boston Red Sox—in 2010, dishing quick-serve classics like burgers, fries, and chicken sandwiches. It later partnered with the team in 2014 to become the Official Burger of the Boston Red Sox, making its burgers available to fans at every home game. Tasty Burger has expanded to six locations, including one in Washington, D.C.
James DiSabatino first got into the fast-casual business with Roxy’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese, which launched as a food truck in 2011 and eventually grew to multiple brick-and-mortar shops. Along with business partner Rebecca Arnold, he opened Whole Heart Provisions next door to one of Roxy’s storefronts in 2015. The fast casual, which now has two locations, specializes in vegetarian bowls. Guests can either customize their own or order from the Signature Bowls lineup, which includes options like the Seoul with bulgogi style beets, carrot and radish kimchi, Korean black beans, edamame, sesame, crispy lentils, and spicy gochujang, and the Cassie with Japanese eggplant, pickled cauliflower, chickpeas, savory green beans, basil, currants, crispy chickpeas, and creamy harissa.
B.GOOD has hands-down become Boston’s most successful fast-casual export. The brand serves healthier versions of comfort-food items like burgers and fries, along with bowls, salads, and sandwiches—all of it using seasonal, sustainable, often local ingredients. Peddling a “Food with Roots” tagline, B.GOOD has grown to more than 50 locations in the U.S., along with 13 in Canada, German, and Switzerland.
Not based in Boston but rather Springfield, Massachusetts, six-unit Hot Table specializes in fresh-made Panini sandwiches, of which it boasts a couple dozen on the menu. Guests can order one of those signature options—like the Swiss Steak Mushroom Melt with shaved steak, steak sauce, Swiss cheese, roasted mushrooms, and crispy onions, or the Tuna Artichoke with white albacore tuna, mayo, provolone cheese, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, and black olives—or they can customize their own. There are also salads, soups, and sides, as well as a kids’ menu.
A new addition to the Boston fast-casual scene, Spyce claims to be the “world’s first restaurant featuring a robotic kitchen that cooks complex meals.” That’s right, this fast casual was designed by MIT graduates and requires very few humans to operate a fully functional bowl-based restaurant. Customers order on table-side kiosks, and robots automatically mix ingredients and cook the dishes in rotating woks. Lest you think this is just some novelty, though, think again: Spyce counts renowned chef Daniel Boulud as investor and culinary director, and one of Boulud’s former sous chefs, Sam Benson, is the executive chef.
Like a few of its local fast-casual peers, Chicken & Rice Guys got its start as a food truck roaming Boston streets. That popularity then extended to three brick-and-mortar locations and a booming catering operation, all of it built around a simple halal menu of customizable rice or salad plates, with the guest’s choice of protein, toppings, and sauces.
Prominent Boston chef Joanne Chang—who won the James Beard award for Outstanding Baker in 2016—first opened the doors to Flour Bakery + Café in 2000, and the brand has since become a Boston favorite with seven locations around the city. It’s an ideal spot for both sweet options—whether it’s sticky buns, scones, or banana bread for breakfast or cakes, cookies, or pies for dessert—and savory, serving a wide range of sandwiches, salads, and grain bowls.