Emerging Concepts | July 2014 | By Marlee Murphy

Where Are They Now?

Catching up with the brands we thought were the next big thing.
QSR has singled out quick service restaurants like Toppers Pizza as emerging concepts.
Toppers has grown from 18 units to 57 since it was featured as One to Watch in July 2008. Toppers Pizza
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Each month, QSR singles out the quick-service and fast-casual brands we think will make a splash in the industry. Sometimes we’re right, and sometimes we’re… well, not. So which Ones to Watch brands are still on fire, and which ones have had their growth hopes doused? Here’s a look back at 15 Ones to Watch brands we’ve featured since 2007—those that are hot, those that are not, and those that are somewhere in between.

HOT

Toppers Pizza

Originally featured: July 2008

Then: 18 units • Now: 57 units

Despite experiencing one of the worst U.S. recessions in
several decades and competing with a number of strong concepts within the quick-service pizza sector, Toppers Pizza tripled its store count over the last six years.

“[Since 2008], not a lot really has changed other than getting better at what we do,” says Chris Cheek, chief development officer for Toppers. “It’s really refining the message; refining the interior of your stores to resonate with that message that you’ve refined; and getting better and smarter about site selection, franchisee selection, and all the support systems that go around that.”

Cheek says Toppers’ variety of house pizzas, its low start-up costs, and its strategic marketing campaign help the brand differentiate itself from others in the booming pizza delivery industry.

“We have 16 unique house pizzas. You’ll see tater tots on a pizza at Toppers, and macaroni and cheese, along with the usual suspects: pepperoni, pepperoni and sausage, and so forth,” he says. “We have these house pizzas you can’t really get anywhere else, and they aren’t just quirky toppings. We design them from a flavor profile standpoint so they do taste great in addition to being very unique.”

Toppers limits its necessary square footage by eliminating the dining room space. Cheek says this cuts down on start-up costs and makes it easier to find suitable locations (and also makes it an appealing franchise opportunity; see 2014 Best Franchise Deals).

“From a unit-level economic perspective, our model is attractive; it works,” Cheek says.

Elevation Burger

Originally featured: December 2009 • Then: 7 units • Now: 43 units

Elevation Burger, a brand committed to fresh, organic burgers, has grown six-fold since it was originally featured in 2009. CEO Rick Altizer attributes this impressive growth to the brand’s made-to-order, better-burger concept.

“Back in 2009, that was kind of a big idea. It still is a very big idea,” Altizer says. “We are still a very young brand, but we’re very much committed to the same core principles we started with. What still attracts new franchisees today is this commitment to the fresh, organic, made-to-order, premium burgers. It’s a better way to eat, and it’s better for you.”

Initially, the brand emphasized the phrase “ingredients matter” to inform guests of its commitment to premium products. However, as consumers became more familiar with the concept, Elevation Burger shifted its tagline to “above and beyond good.” Altizer says Elevation Burger goes above and beyond to provide tasty, suitable offerings for health-conscious consumers. The fast casual offers lettuce wraps, organic burgers, veggie burgers, premium dips, and hand-spun milkshakes; options are available for customers with gluten intolerance, nut allergies, and other dietary restrictions.

While the food has remained the same at Elevation Burger, Altizer says, the franchisee base has evolved over the last five years.

“The strength and diversity of our franchisee base is a real differentiation between now and then. We were so young and so small,” Altizer says. “[Another] change would be the growth we found in the Middle East. … Our international division is a reality that we didn’t yet have developed in 2009. It would be a big part of our growth story for the future.”

Freebirds World Burrito

Originally featured: October 2010 • Then: 35 units • Now: 108 units

Freebirds World Burrito’s expansion efforts have soared over the last four years thanks to the three C’s: culture, creativity, and communication, says senior vice president of operations Bobby Shaw. He adds that the brand has begun to resonate with a larger audience, leading to growth that surpassed expectations.

“The thing that’s probably changed the most for us is just that we have begun to really start to look at growth in a way that is more organic,” Shaw says. “It’s all about creating a culture, so … becoming a culture that is beginning to attract not only guests, but also more top-performing employees, as well.”

Brand creativity has been key in developing this company culture. Freebirds encourages individuality among employees and does not enforce a strict dress code. It also emphasizes that its “tribe” (employees) can come in to work and be their own person.

“What really sets us apart is that we’re really involving the tribes in how we set the goals for the organization. … We want them to be fully invested in what it is that we’re doing,” Shaw says. “We want to communicate with them on a regular basis to make sure that they know where we’re going. We ask for their feedback.”

Freebirds hopes to continue its impressive growth in the coming years by increasing its online presence through social media, and finding better ways to interact with consumers as they enter the restaurant.

Red Mango

Originally featured: July 2010 • Then: 60 units • Now: 321 units

Red Mango hit its 300th location milestone earlier this year, and Jim Notarnicola, the brand’s vice president of franchising and marketing, says maintaining relevancy with consumers has been key for its ongoing growth.

“We built the brand based on three ideas: really great-tasting products that are very healthful and served up in a stylish way,” Notarnicola says.

Red Mango has managed to preserve its product quality while also adapting to the always-changing quick-service environment. During the past few years, the brand has experimented with smoothie offerings, a variety of store formats, and light lunch menus.

“[Red Mango] has evolved quite extensively,” Notarnicola says. “We started with what became our ‘world famous frozen yogurt.’ Then we expanded fairly quickly into smoothies. We’re now quite extensively in the smoothie business. Our latest announcement is that we’re going into fresh, cold-squeezed juices, which is a nice extension from smoothies.”

Notarnicola says Red Mango’s smoothies and juices are a hit with health-conscious, active-lifestyle consumers. The brand’s target demographic, predominantly active, young women, tends to be cognizant of nutrition and has encouraged the brand to pursue these offerings.

In addition to catching the healthy lifestyle wave, Red Mango has made its store format flexible, ensuring its success in a variety of locations. Notarnicola says the brand has added self-service, kiosk, and nontraditional formats to help franchisees stay flexible.

La Boulange

Originally featured: September 2010 • Then: 13 units • Now: 21 units

In part due to its 2012 acquisition by coffee industry leader Starbucks, La Boulange has become an overnight success with consumers. La Boulange spokeswoman Lily Gluzberg says the brand’s continued commitment to its French-inspired fare and teaming with Starbucks have contributed to the bakery’s tremendous growth.

“The La Boulange footprint continues to grow through the partnership with Starbucks,” Gluzberg writes in an email to QSR. “La Boulange is the platform for all food in Starbucks stores, including soon-to-come lunch and evening savory items, and is expected to reach customers in more than 7,000 U.S. company-operated Starbucks stores by 2014 year-end.”

Gluzberg says this partnership with Starbucks will not affect the brand’s French-inspired offerings. La Boulange also remains devoted to its San Francisco Bay–area roots.

“The store expansion in the Bay Area stems from customer appreciation for skillfully crafted, authentic French offerings made using high-quality, fresh ingredients, and the brand’s commitment to bringing the artistry of the French bakery to the marketplace alongside an uncompromising customer experience,” Gluzberg says. “La Boulange and [founder] Pascal [Rigo] are also committed to giving back to the local community that it calls home through various programs and events, allowing the brand to stay connected to its community and San Francisco roots.”

Beyond the baked goods La Boulange is known for, it also continues to serve brunch, lunch, and dinner menu items in several locations. The concept offers a range of options, from salads and sandwiches to omelets, burgers, pomme frites, and a Maine lobster sandwich in some stores.

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