rank last year: 6
A few years ago, fresh, premium, and gourmet may not have been words in the mix during a casual conversation about Taco Bell. And yet here we are, with the company riding high on the Cantina Bell menu, not to mention the uber-successful Doritos Locos Taco. Despite his claims to the contrary, CEO Greg Creed seems to be taking the hovering threat from Chipotle seriously. Click here to find out what exactly that means for the company.
rank last year: 7
Sure, Dunkin’ Donuts appealed to more all-day customers with its Bakery Sandwiches and Chicken Salad and Tuna Salad Wraps. Yes, it did focus more intently on healthy options with its DDSmarts menu, which now includes Quaker Oatmeal and a Turkey Sausage Breakfast Sandwich. All of that is good and well. But really, the most important thing Dunkin’ did all year came on January 16, 2013: The company announced that, having opened up several other Western markets for franchising, it would be moving into Southern California. The coffee wars, it seems, are only now heating up.
rank last year: 8
Pizza Hut has stirred up quite a bit of buzz with international product releases—we suggest you Google the Double Sensation pizza-within-a-pizza and the Crown Crust pizza with cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets—though the company turned a lot of heads state-side with its Crazy Cheesy Crust pizza, too (the crust doubles as tear-off Cheesy Bites). Novelty pies aside, Pizza Hut did dabble in real innovation, trying out Pizza Sliders, a crowdsourced Super Bowl ad, and the first-ever restaurant ordering app on Xbox. It’s still the No. 1 pizza brand, so crazy pizzas or no crazy pizzas, customers are in for the ride.
rank last year: 10
Controversy? What controversy? Despite spending a few weeks last summer under intense national scrutiny due to comments made by president Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A turned in another crazy-successful year, passing KFC as the No. 1 chicken brand for the first time (even with just a third or so of the units as KFC). A healthier kids’ meal—now with Grilled Chicken Nuggets and applesauce options—encouraged the brand to jump on board with the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program, and new salads and wraps this year further solidified the company’s commitment to nutrition. It also hasn’t hurt that consumer survey after consumer survey puts Chick-fil-A toward the top of the quick-service heap when it comes to quality and service (including among the all-important Millennials).
rank last year: 9
The Colonel may have been kicked off the top of the roost by Chick-fil-A, but KFC hasn’t tucked its wings in the menu-development department. Original Recipe Bites and Chunky Chicken Pot Pie joined the menu, as did Original Recipe Boneless chicken, which brand leaders suggested will be the major focus in the near future (and which has already succeeded on the back of the clever “I ate the bones” marketing campaign). The brand will have to scratch back to prominence in the U.S. if it hopes to maintain relevancy; its typically foolproof international sister, KFC China, is in a tailspin after food-safety problems and an avian flu scare.
rank last year: 13
It’s coming, folks; as soon as next year, the fast-casual category will infiltrate the QSR 50’s top 10. Panera Bread now sits on the brink, having inched a few spots closer after adding nearly $500 million and more than 100 stores in 2012. Like a few other brands on this list, Panera hasn’t had to tweak a whole lot to succeed—mostly it continues to rely on loyal customers and its position as the market leader. It did, however, enter Manhattan for the first time in 2012, and recently rolled out a new “Live Consciously, Eat Deliciously” ad campaign that hypes its commitment to a value-based company culture. It should be a good platform for Ron Shaich—who once again became sole CEO after Bill Moreton moved to the position of chairman of the board—to guide the brand into the limited-service industry’s elite.
rank last year: 11
Good news, truckers! Your years of hardship and toil at mealtime are over. Now you have your very own drive-in ordering station at Sonic, where you don’t even have to exit the cab to gobble down a Coney, limeade, and tots. OK, so it’s just at the Sonic in Valliant, Oklahoma. And maybe that won’t really be “a thing” for the company moving into the future. But it serves as a good example of how Sonic so successfully keeps trucking along (pardon the pun) in a quick-serve industry eager to keep up with modern trends. Sonic’s unique drive-in differentiation, combined with roadside burger-stand menu items, appeals to a giant swath of Middle America—Boomers, Millennials, and truckers alike.