NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The appetite of investors for the next hot "better for you" fast-food chain in the mold of Chipotle (CMG) is showing no signs of being satisfied.

On Tuesday, Dig Inn, which operates 10 locations in New York City and brands itself as a "farm to table" concept serving healthy seasonal fare, announced a $15 million Series C funding round. The consortium providing Dig Inn's cash injection was led by Wexford Capital. It also includes Monogram Capital Partners, the founding partner of Riverwood Capital and former Flextronics (FLEX)  CEO Michael Marks, and existing Dig Inn investor Magnus Hoglund.

The company declined to disclose what the fresh round of funding valued the business at, instead saying it projects a year end 2014 sales run rate north of $35 million. 



In August of 2014, Buffalo Wild Wings ( BWLD) announced a majority investment in Rusty Taco, which owns and operates nine restaurants in Denver, Minneapolis and Dallas. Rusty Taco, known as a fast-casual restaurant, specializes in street-style tacos made fresh and from scratch. The undisclosed amount invested in Rusty Taco by Buffalo Wild Wings followed it taking a minority stake in PizzaRev, an artisanal fast casual pizza concept where people build their own pies. There are 23 existing PizzaRev's now in operation in California, Minnesota, Utah and Texas. Another 10 are listed as coming soon on the PizzaRev website, including in new markets Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota.

Even DineEquity (DIN) , owner of the Applebee's and IHOP brands, is now seeking an investment in an upstart chain that could be quickly expanded nationally using its franchise model.

Seven restaurant companies have gone public from 2013 and 2014, averaging first-day increases in their stock prices of 68.9% according to Restaurant News. Five of those seven restaurant operators debuted on the market in 2014, raising a combined $486 million, per Reuters data.

Dig Inn's most recent location in New York City is its first to serve beer and wine on tap in partnership with local businesses, in addition to an affordably priced menu, 70% of which is vegetables. The alcohol focus stands to put the upstart into direct competition with beer and appetizer slingers kings Applebee's, Buffalo Wild Wings, TGI Friday's, and Chili's, which is owned by Ignite Restaurant Group ( IRG) , as Dig Inn expands into suburban markets. 
 
The business models of Dig Inn and other newcomers to the fast-casual space are similar to juggernaut Chipotle, which boasts over 1,700 company-owned locations globally and has its sights set on opening close to 200 new spots in 2015.


For instance, Dig Inn and PizzaRev send hungry customers down an assembly line, allowing them to build their meals consisting of locally sourced ingredients in much the same fashion as Chipotle. Like Chipotle, Dig Inn is keen on owning all its restaurants instead of franchising in order to maintain a workplace culture that it feels is integral to its past and future success.

"We are devoting considerable effort to how we maintain the culture that we have, a small scrappy startup perspective, a group willing to roll up our sleeves and get things done," said Eskin. Those words echo those offered by Chipotle co-CEO Monty Moran last summer. "We think that the people culture and food culture, as well as the unit economic model, are what yields the extraordinary success that we've had, and are keys to any concept going forward," stressed Moran in an Aug. 27 interview with TheStreet.    
 
Not surprisingly, Eskin said he was skeptical of efforts by McDonald's to  turn around its struggling U.S. business with renewed marketing efforts emphasizing health, as well as a build-your-own-burger platform. "I would question the viability of a company like McDonald's sort of repositioning itself in an authentic way from a brand perspective."

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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