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Feast Your Eyes - 7 Restaurant Chains To Watch In 2014

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Resturants are hard work, for owners, managers and staff. And they can be a risky business, with a failure rate of about 60 percent within the first three years.

But there are also eating establishments whose popularity have turned them into major companies and household names, both in the U.S. and overseas. Here are some restaurant chains -- some new, some quite established --  with intriguing stories and financial data.

Posted-In: chain restaurants food and beverage Ignite Restaurant GroupNews Restaurants Economics Media General Best of Benzinga

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    Fogo de Chão

    This high-end, full-service restaurant chain has been serving Brazilian, churrasco-style steaks in nearly 20 cities across the U.S. and seven more in Brazil. 

    “Fogo” recently opened a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan and plans another opening this spring in Portland, Oregon.

    Founded in Brazil in the late 1970s, and currently based in Dallas, it was acquired in 2012 by the Boston-based private equity firm Thomas H. Lee Partners, reportedly for $400 million. 

    The Fogo restaurants have been generating a lot of positive reviews and word-of-mouth – and when food columns in Kansas City and other heartland cities start talking about Brazilian food and drink as the next big trend, it may be time to pay attention.

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    Romano's Macaroni Grill

    First opened in 1988, the company now owns and operates 186 units, as well as five franchise units, in 36 states. 

    In 2012, Romano's Macaroni Grill, with its distinctive Italian menu, reportedly generated around $385 million in revenues.

    The company was acquired in early 2013 by the Ignite Restaurant Group (NASDAQ: IRG) from the private equity firm Golden Gate Capital, in an all-cash deal of around $55 million. 

    Along with the Macaroni Grill, Houston-based Ignite owns and operates two other restaurant chains, Joe's Crab Shack and Brick House Tavern + Tap. The group's revenue rose 76.3 percent in its most recent earnings report, this past November, compared to the same time period in 2012 – with analysts forecasting Ignite to post $-0.10 EPS during the current fiscal year. 

    Zacks, meanwhile, upgraded Ignite from Underperform to Neutral in early January

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    Panda Express

    Part of the privately-owned Panda Restaurant Group, which includes the Panda Inn and Hibachi-San chains, Panda Express has been bringing fast Chinese food to Americans since 1983.

    It currently has more than 1,500 locations in 42 states, as well as Puerto Rico and Mexico.

    Panda Restaurant Group reported annual revenues of over $1.7 billion in 2012. It also had 13 consecutive years of same-store sales growth, reportedly averaging five percent from 1996 to 2008.

    Panda Express is the only organization that's cracked the code on creating a successful, sustainable Asian fast casual dining concept on a national scale," Andy Fletcher, CEO of Bailey Lauerman, told the industry web site FastCasual soon after Panda hired his company as its new creative agency in early January.

    "They understand what it takes — from the quality of the food to the quality of the guest experience — to succeed in this highly competitive category.”

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    Noodles & Company

    Founded in Denver in 1995, Noodles & Company (NASDAQ: NDLS), serves up noodle and pasta dishes from around the world at more than 370 locations in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

    The company had one of the hottest IPOs in 2013.

    The Daily Beast calls it a great example “of a company that has prospered in the recession and in the slow-growth aftermath by providing solid value, focusing on operations, and offering greater choice in areas that have traditionally been food deserts.” 

    Nicole Miller Reagan with Piper Jaffray told Bloomberg TV that Noodles & Company “could be the next transformational stock.

    They took what Panera (NASDAQ: PNRA) did in the 1990s with fast casual and what Chipotle (NYSE: CMG) really capitalized on, and that's the big bet.”

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    California Pizza Kitchen

    Started by two former federal prosecutors, CPK opened its first restaurant in Beverly Hills in 1985.

    The restaurant's unique California “take” on pizzas soon had a growing fan base both in the Golden State and beyond.

    CPK currently has more than 250 locations in 30 states and 11 countries.

    The company had its IPO in August of 2000 – and was traded on NASDAQ under the ticker symbol CPKO.

    In July of 2011, Golden Gate Capital completed its acquisition of California Pizza Kitchen and took the company private. CPK also partnered with Kraft (NASDAQ: KRFT) in the late 1990s to launch a line of frozen pizzas.

    In 2010, Nestle purchased Kraft's frozen pizza business, including the CPK line of products. 

    In 2012 the company announced plans for a brand renewal and updated signage program. And late last year CPK launched a new line of gluten-free pizza, that is says can be safely be eaten by celiac disease sufferers.

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    WingStreet

    Pizza Hut, a part of YUM Brands (NYSE: YUM), put chicken wings on its menu in 1995, and never looked back.

    The growing popularity of the wings brought about WingStreet in 2003, as a partner restaurant with Pizza Hut. By 2010 there were reportedly more than 4,000 WingStreet units in the U.S. – nearly all within a Pizza Hut location.

    A pilot program for a stand-alone WingStreet restaurants did poorly last year at its suburban Dallas location and closed after a few months.

    But Pizza Hut's director of public relations told the Nation's Restaurant News website the company “learned a lot from consumers that we'll be able to now apply to the (stand-alone WingStreet) concept moving forward.” 

    And Pizza Hut spokesman Doug Terfehr told the Dallas Business Journal that not only is the stand-along WingStreet concept alive and well, but that 75 to 80 percent of all Pizza Huts are expected to have a WingStreet outlet by this year. 

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    Nathan's Famous

    Started by Polish immigrant, Nathan Handwerker at a Coney Island, NY hot dog stand nearly 100 years ago, Nathan's (NASDAQ: NATH) iconic beef hot dogs quickly became international favorites.

    Nathan's restaurant division has nearly 270 units.

    And its Branded Product Program provides for the sale of Nathan's products at more than 7,700 food service locations in the U.S. – and more than 7,000 supermarkets and club stories.

    The company says it sold more than 435 million hot dogs this past year.  The company's annual 4th of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest attracts media from around the globe, and is aired on ESPN.

    Nathan's is also expanding overseas. It signed master franchise agreement for Nathan's development in Turkey in 2012 and Mexico City last year.

    And in 2013, Nathan's opened its first Russian outlet.

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