15 Fast-Food Contenders to Watch in 2020

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MOD Pizza

MOD Pizza

While nobody has a COVID-19 crystal ball, there is one fallout that seems a safe bet. Some of the country’s biggest chains, from McDonald’s to Burger King to Starbucks, are using this juncture to trim under-performing restaurants and replace others with assets designed for a digital world. In truth, this isn’t so much a pandemic byproduct as it is an acceleration. This was taking form pre-COVID-19—the crisis simply compressed the timeframe.

Restaurants were already shrinking footprints, investing in tech, and reconfiguring layouts to better serve convenience-minded consumers. Things like digital pickup shelves, mobile order pickup windows, second make-lines, ghost kitchens, and reimagined drive-thru lanes.

As this unfurls, real estate and conversions will open up. Closures, to whatever level ends up as reality, is going to ignite expansion opportunity for restaurants ready to capitalize. Some full-service chains, like Applebee’s and IHOP, have noted the harsh truth that independents are going to face extremely harsh pressure. And those closure sites are going to shift the impending growth debate. As will a less-saturated landscape that offers competitive opportunities.

To put it plainly, a year or two from now, perhaps sooner, the makeup of the restaurant industry is going to look very different.

Each year, in addition to ranking the Top 50 quick-service chains in America, QSR collects the “contenders,” or the 15 brands just outside the cutoff. Given the inevitable unit count movement brought on by COVID-19, it’s rather likely some of these push through in 2021. However, it’s just as possible they fall back further and other concepts emerge. Some, like MOD Pizza and Smoothie King, enjoyed growth north of 60 units from 2018 to 2019. Others, like Boston Market and Long John Silver’s, slid by 50-plus.

CHECK OUT LAST YEAR'S CONTENDERS

Here’s a look at where the contenders stacked up coming into the year, from sales, average-unit volume, and growth.

Note: These figures are year-end 2019 domestic numbers and ranked in order of systemwide sales.

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Captain D's
Captain D's family deals.
Captain D's

1. Captain D’s

Systemwide sales (in millions): $562

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $1,084

Total restaurants: 540

Company units: 291

Franchised units: 249

Total change: 11

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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White Castle

White Castle

2. White Castle

Systemwide sales (in millions): $560

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $1,493

Total restaurants: 375

Company units: 372

Franchised units:3

Total change: 0

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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Einstein Bros. Bagels
Einstein Bros. Bagels brunch box.
Einstein Bros. Bagels

3. Einstein Bros.

Systemwide sales (in millions): $550

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $759

Total restaurants: 729

Company units: 353

Franchised units:376

Total change: 14

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers
Platter of burgers, fries, and drinks from Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers.

Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers

4. Freddy’s

Systemwide sales (in millions): $536

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $1,533

Total restaurants: 367

Company units: 29

Franchised units:338

Total change: 39

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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Noodles & Company
Noodles & Company family meals.
Noodles & Company

5. Noodles & Company

Systemwide sales (in millions): $529

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $1,153

Total restaurants: 457

Company units: 389

Franchised units:68

Total change: –2

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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Boston Market
Boston Market Easter Dinner platter.
Boston Market

6. Boston Market

Systemwide sales (in millions): $515

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $1,278

Total restaurants: 376

Company units: 360

Franchised units:16

Total change: –54

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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Long John Silver's

Long John Silver's

7. Long John Silver’s

Systemwide sales (in millions): $515

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $611

Total restaurants: 817

Company units: 196

Franchised units:621

Total change: –53

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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The Habit Restaurants
The Habit Restaurants exterior.

The Habit Restaurants

8. The Habit Burger Grill

Systemwide sales (in millions): $501

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $1,953

Total restaurants: 264

Company units: 241

Franchised units:23

Total change: 21

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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Jamba

Jamba

9. Jamba

Systemwide sales (in millions): $496

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $658   

Total restaurants: 779

Company units: 2

Franchised units:777

Total change: –11

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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MOD Super Fast Pizza Holdings
MOD Pizza.
MOD Super Fast Pizza Holdings

10. MOD Pizza

Systemwide sales (in millions): $493

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $1,140

Total restaurants: 468

Company units: 377

Franchised units:91

Total change: 64

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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Smoothie King

Smoothie King

11. Smoothie King

Systemwide sales (in millions): $475

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $505               

Total restaurants: 972

Company units: 38

Franchised units:934

Total change: 70

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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Charleys Philly Steaks
Charleys Philly Steaks drive-thru sign.
Charleys Philly Steaks

12. Charleys Philly Steaks

Systemwide sales (in millions): $445

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $854   

Total restaurants: 549

Company units: 57

Franchised units:492

Total change: 17

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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Potbelly
Potbelly exterior of restaurant.
Potbelly

13. Potbelly

Systemwide sales (in millions): $445

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $937               

Total restaurants: 472

Company units: 432

Franchised units:40

Total change: –6

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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Portillo's
Drink, hot dog, and fries from Portillo's.

Portillo's

14. Portillo’s

Systemwide sales (in millions): $440

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $7,273

Total restaurants: 64

Company units: 64

Franchised units:0

Total change: 7

Read more in the QSR 50 here.

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Krystal

Krystal

15. Krystal

Systemwide sales (in millions): $400

Average sales per unit (in thousands): $1,316

Total restaurants: 300

Company units: 198

Franchised units:102 

Total change: –8

Read more in the QSR 50 here.