April 15, 2021 at 10:44PM

The past 13 months have transformed many consumers’ appetites, with some consumers turning to indulgent comfort foods to alleviate mid-pandemic stress and others opting for more nutritious options to establish a sense of wellness amid the chaos. Though it has been an enormously challenging period for restaurant businesses small and large alike, those that have been able to meet these needs have had a unique opportunity to build their following.

Health-centric fast-casual chain Rush Bowls, for one, was able to open eight new restaurants, bringing its total store count to 32, appealing to consumers’ increased desire for nutritious meals with recognizable ingredients. Now, propelled by the past year’s success, the chain is looking to open 14 to 16 new stores throughout 2021, which would increase its total count by as much as 50 percent.

“​I think [health food] is a category that has been on the rise even before the pandemic hit,” Nicole McCray, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Rush Bowls, told PYMNTS in a recent interview. “This trend was only amplified by the pandemic when people became even more concerned with staying healthy and ensuring they were in the best possible shape to combat anything that came at them … Prioritizing good physical and mental health became a very real thing for people when faced with this new challenge, and a big part of that is eating well.”

Beyond Survival Mode

To drive this mid-pandemic growth, the chain has emphasized the nutrition angle, offering a palliative for consumers’ health anxieties.

“We tapped into the health aspect of our products, which is always incredibly important, but even more so during a time when everyone is extremely concerned with keeping their immunity up,” said McCray. “Being a health-focused, grab-and-go concept allowed us to keep our loyal customers engaged and capture a new audience of people looking for the right type of meal to include in their new routine.”

The chain also expanded its off-premises ordering option, adding curbside pickup and grab-and-go and expanding its delivery business.

“Because of these calculated pivots,” McCray said, “we were able to not only survive the pandemic, but to actually see significant growth throughout it.”

While the chain was tailoring its messaging to consumers’ to-the-minute needs, it was also bolstering its own internal communications.

“​Prior to the pandemic, there were certain communication challenges within our community that needed to be addressed, which I think the pandemic actually allowed us to focus on and correct through all of the [communication] we had to do in order to keep up with the ever-changing protocols … We were able to truly strengthen our network processes and mend some of the strains that existed between the corporate team and the franchise network.”

Rush Bowls’ Nationwide Approach To Expansion

Several of the new locations planned come from existing partners looking to open up new stores, building on the recent success. The chain’s forthcoming expansion is not centered on any regions in particular, but rather Rush Bowls is looking to grow its footprint across the country.

“One thing we’ve done that similar concepts have shied away from is grown nationally all at once instead of building out regional networks beforehand,” noted McCray. “We’ve always taken the nationwide expansion approach, which sometimes isn’t popular due to a fear of not having anchors in certain areas, but we have enormous faith in our brand … This strategy has allowed us to gain traction in multiple different areas all at once, creating new anchors to then grow from, setting us up for enormous growth throughout the entire country much more quickly than if we were just focused on just expanding within our current hubs.”

As the chain is looking to add new stores, it is also looking to streamline operations at its existing locations. Rush Bowls is “focused on fine-tuning some of our tech to make a lot of our new processes even more efficient.” McCray added that the chain is making technological improvements “that we feel will increase our visibility, delivery efficiencies, and profit margins.”

The Fast-Casual Advantage

“There is always a time and place for a home-cooked meal or a fancy dining experience out with friends, but people are looking for things that easily fit into their inevitably fat-paced lives and routines,” said McCray. “With people growing more aware of some of the dangers associated with typical fast food, but also turned off by the high cost of upscale fare, the fast-casual concept provides a solution for those who are both food and wallet conscious.”

She predicted that fast-casual dining would continue to gain market share in the next several years, taking “the place of many a fast food and/or fine dining concept.”

Her predictions echo those of Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop Chief Development and Operations Officer David Bloom, who told PYMNTS in a recent interview that fast-casual is in the “sweet spot of where the consumer is and where they seem to be going,” explaining, “People still want an upscale experience, they still want a really high-quality product, but they want it delivered, they want it brought to their home, they want it at … more of an affordable price point.”

“The landscape is only going to continue to grow and get better because that’s what the market wants,” McCray reflected. “The people will tell us what they want, and the industry won’t have a choice but to keep up, which I think everyone involved is already preparing for … We’re all so incredibly excited to see where the next 12 months will take us, and we couldn’t be better positioned for the plans we have in store.”


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