Special Report | August 2012 | By Sam Oches

The QSR 50

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The top 50 quick-service and fast-casual restaurant brands.
McDonald's once again claims the No. 1 spot on the QSR 50.
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17 Chipotle ( 18 )

Chipotle took its “Food With Integrity” identity to the next level last year, using its clout to turn customers’ attention to the plight of local farmers. Two short videos went viral online advertising the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, which helps fund initiatives that support sustainable agriculture and family farming. One of those videos, featuring a sublime Willie Nelson rendition of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” even became Chipotle’s first nationally aired commercial when it debuted during this year’s Grammy Awards.

Chipotle’s 2011 opening of the ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen in Washington, D.C., created additional good buzz for the brand. Turns out the company needed all the good buzz it could get; the company’s struggles with ICE compliance and founder Steve Ells’ participation in the abysmal “America’s Next Great Restaurant” TV show gave Chipotle some rare negative press.

18 Papa John’s ( 17 )

“Papa” John Schnatter is all by his lonesome now in the CEO position after former co-CEO Jude Thompson left to pursue other interests. So far, the results of the Papa John’s formula have been the same: By doing the occasional LTO (like its Buffalo Chicken Pizza), going all in on sports sponsorships (which it’s done as the Official Pizza of the NFL), and riding that sponsorship in its marketing (as it did with this year’s “Super Bowl XVLI Coin Toss Experience”), Papa John’s maintains its spot as a top-three pizza company in the U.S.

19 Hardee’s ( 19 )

Hardee’s, along with CKE sister concept Carl’s Jr., may have been the first major quick serve to offer turkey burgers, which it did early in 2011. But make no mistake; this brand is still shooting for the young, hungry male demographic, which it lured with its Steakhouse Burgers, the Country Fried Steak and Gravy platter, and the new Southwest Patty Melt, the latter of which was promoted (seductively) by America’s newest model superstar, Kate Upton. For those opposed to CKE’s hot-women-and-juicy-burgers strategy, the company released a bold new tagline: “Just the way it is.” No word yet on what the company’s new shareholders (CKE filed for its IPO in May) think of the strategy.

20 Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen ( 20 )

A return to the company’s popular Pay Day, Wicked Chicken, and Crawfish LTOs, along with the addition of the Rip’N Chick’N and Dip’N Chick’N offers, helped drive Popeyes’ growth in 2011, as it grew by a net 58 stores and nearly $100 million over 2010. The company also jumped aboard the healthy-eats trend with its Louisiana Leaux menu of better-for-you alternatives, which included the return of its Naked Chicken Tenders, as well as the side additions of green beans and apple sauce.

21 Panda Express ( 22 )

The Asian category leader, Panda Express centered its development on menu innovations, which in 2011 included LTOs like Firecracker Chicken Breast and Garlic Lover’s Chicken Breast, as well as permanent items like the Golden Treasure Shrimp. The Paw Plate that went into test in 2012 aims to give customers more menu variety at smaller portions, offering three 4-ounce entrees for $6.25.

22 Carl’s Jr. ( 23 )

While Carl’s Jr. largely stuck to the same script in 2011 as Hardee’s—launching the Charbroiled Turkey Burgers, Steakhouse Burgers, and Hand-Breaded Chicken Fillet sandwich, and upping its commitment to the young male demographic with its Kate Upton spots—Carl’s Jr. also was busy with its own menu innovation. The Hand-Scooped Oreo Ice Cream Sandwich, Chicken Tender Wrappers, and previously Hardee’s-exclusive Made From Scratch Biscuits all showed up on Carl’s Jr.’s menu in 2011, helping it inch one spot closer to its sister concept on the QSR 50.

23 Little Caesars ( 24 )

Little Caesars added more than 300 net units and $200 million in sales between 2010 and 2011. What exactly did it do to earn those numbers? Well, not a whole lot. By maintaining its commitment to its $5 Hot-N-Ready pizza and seeking out valuable sports partnerships (including attaching its name to a college football bowl game), Little Caesars is climbing up the quick-service ranks. The 2012 TV spot “Nobody Does It Like We Do” signaled a major commitment from the company to its national marketing efforts.

A New You

QSR 50 brands that unveiled new prototypes

  • Wendy’s
  • Zaxby’s
  • Steak ’n Shake
  • Checkers/Rally's
  • Del Taco
  • CiCi’s Pizza

24 Whataburger ( 25 )

History paints Whataburger as a hometown, traditional, authentic burger brand. Last year’s documentary-style marketing campaign from the company, its first in nine years, certainly showed as much; real employees and real customers were the stars of the campaign. But Whataburger, with new CEO Preston Atkinson in tow, also ramped up its innovation in 2011, offering new menu items like the Banana Pie and Shake, the Pineapple Pie and Shake, the Honey Mustard Chicken Club sandwich, the Fish Taco and Spicy Tartar Sauce, and the Green Chile Burger. The company also debuted its All-Time Faves menu, which showcased several past LTO-only items, and made a commitment to healthier kids’ meals, offering apple slices and a whole-grain bun.

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