Special Report | August 2011 | By Sam Oches

The 2011 QSR 50

The top quick-serve and fast-casual brands in the nation.

 

1/McDonald’s

There’s no beating McDonald’s. The quick-serve champ padded its domestic sales by nearly $1.5 billion over 2009. The fast food giant continued to reinvent product innovation in the quick-serve industry by rolling out Real Fruit Smoothies, Angus Snack Wraps, and even oatmeal systemwide, as well as introducing new drinks like the Caramel Mocha.

Head chef Dan Coudreaut says customers can expect more fruits and vegetables on McDonald’s menu as customers demand more healthy offerings. In the meantime, the company is toying with a fast-casual-like prototype in at least one market that executives hope will give the concept more of a sit-and-stay-awhile vibe to compete with the likes of Panera.

2/Subway

Jared Fogle, it seems, is not so much a lucky charm for Subway after all. Even after Fogle, a spokesman for Subway for more than a decade, “retired” in April, the sandwich company continued its explosive expansion all over the world.

In fact, by the end of the year, it could call itself the biggest fast food company in the world. Although light-years behind McDonald’s in terms of sales, the “Eat Fresh” purveyor claimed 33,749 global units at year’s end, a full 1,012 more than the Golden Arches.

A commitment to its $5 Footlongs—seven of which are permanent—helped Subway hold firm in the minds of price-conscious customers. But an upscale prototype in test right now could target a whole different type of clientele.

3/Burger King

Whirlwind may sum up Burger King’s 2010 best. The No. 2 burger chain’s R&D department was hard at work, but it was the finances that really made waves.

In October, the flame-broiled burger brand was acquired by equity firm 3G Capital for a cool $3.26 billion. The transition didn’t hurt Burger King’s product innovation, though. The concept solidified its position in the breakfast daypart in a big way, adding 11 new breakfast items throughout the year and partnering with Seattle’s Best to offer premium coffee. BK also jumped onboard Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign and vowed to keep kids’ meals healthy.

While a heavy push into healthy may not define the brand moving forward, it’s hoping its new 20/20 store prototype and Whopper Bar concept might catch on with a young consumer base.

4/Wendy’s

Trying to reclaim its burger glory from the days of founder Dave Thomas, Wendy’s upped the innovation ante by adding Garden Sensations Salads to the menu and offering a Pair 2 Menu that gave customers a chance to choose among 35 salad combinations for $5.

But the biggest menu change for Wendy’s came in the form of its Natural Cut Fries with Sea Salt, a complete overhaul of the company’s signature fries that kept the potato skin and was fried in proprietary oil. And in a nod to Thomas, Wendy’s even rolled out a marketing campaign starring Wendy herself.

The renewed sense of authenticity might have been top of mind when the company decided to unload sister brand Arby’s in the first half of 2011.

5/Starbucks

The joke always was with Starbucks that the company opened another store faster than you can say orange mocha frappucino. But in 2010, that was hardly the case, and by the end of the year the coffee giant had the same number of stores it had at the end of 2009.

Instead of unit expansion, Starbucks vowed to grow the brand through existing stores by opening up new channels of growth and improving the customer experience. Free WiFi was added, and the brand even tested a modern store design that was one part coffee shop and one part bar—including wine and beer.

Starbucks also worked to increase its position as a multichannel company, adding an iced version of its instant-coffee product VIA and taking its Seattle’s Best brand into new consumer touch points, including at Subway, Burger King, and AMC Theaters.

Of course, the year wasn’t without its Starbucks growth humor; the company did open its first-ever unit on a cruise ship.

Next: QSR 50 Profiles 6 - 10

Pages