QSR's 6 Most Popular Stories of 2018

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Sandwich at 'wichcraft fast casual.

The best of the year

As 2018 comes to a close, we decided to take a look at the QSR stories that got people talking throughout the year. From our list of the top 40 emerging fast casual brands to an explanation of what’s happening in the pizza industry, here are the most popular stories of 2018.

Pictured above is 'Wichcraft, a member of QSR's annual 40/40 List.

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1. The 2018 QSR 50

The restaurant industry is the Wild West, with fierce competition leading to an unpredictable roller-coaster ride for many quick-serve and fast-casual brands. One year, you could be riding high on a successful new menu item or marketing strategy; the next, a controversial executive comment or disastrous value deal could bring your sales momentum to a sputtering stop.

Thankfully, we’re here to document it all—the rises, the falls, and the truly unpredictable. Read more here to find out which 50 limited-service companies did enough to land a spot among the industry’s elite.

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Farm Burger

2.  The 40/40 List: America's Hottest Startup Fast Casuals

Last year, we had an epiphany: So much of the fast-casual innovation we kept raving about was flowing out of the same set of emerging brands that had only a handful of locations at best. Those young pups were forcing much larger brands to re-evaluate their own operations as the upstarts thrived in cities across the country. We chose to recognize those young brands much like other publications recognize young leaders: with a 40 Under 40 list, only in our case, qualifying entrants by locations rather than age.

We identified core criteria for what set those fast casual 2.0 chains apart: chef-driven menus, premium hospitality, a focus on experience rather than value, enhanced beverage programs, high-quality ingredients, ambitions other than growth and profit, a collaborative spirit, and commitment to long-term relationships with stakeholders. Last year’s curated 40/40 List was so successful that we brought it back—and we took it one step further. Rather than identify the same set of brands year after year until they crack the 40-unit ceiling—yawn—we figured that, just like those 40 Under 40 lists, we’d graduate the whole class and introduce you to a brand-new set of innovators.

In our second-annual 40/40, we offered a completely fresh set of 40 fast casuals with the potential to be the next big thing. Read it here.

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3. Who’s Winning the Pizza Wars?

A decade ago, the pizza category was stagnant. Today, legacy brands and ambitious fast casuals are locked in an intense, innovative battle. Attacked from all angles up and down stream, perhaps no foodservice category endures such an endless competitive environment as pizza. The U.S. pizza market is robust and promising, challenged and commoditized, crowded and captivating—often all at the same time. Read more about which pizza brands are in the lead here.

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4. This Classic Sandwich Chain is Going Fine Casual

In recent years, there has been a rise of hip sandwich chains, like Mendocino Farms, selling scratch-made food, highlighting local spirit, and offering engaging spaces for diners. After consulting outside firms, it was clear to Schlotzsky’s leadership that the next generation of diners, Gen Z and millennials with young families, were looking for restaurants more in the fine-casual category.

Read more about Schlotzsky’s plan to change everything from decor to name to menu—and the addition of alcohol—here.

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5. Inside the Plan to Fix McDonald's

Steve Easterbrook has been McDonald’s CEO for three years, and his signature Turnaround Plan is already paying dividends.

On May 4, 2015, Steve Easterbrook announced himself to the world.

Newly minted as McDonald’s CEO—just two months after taking over for Don Thompson—Easterbrook starred in an online video in which he outlined a Turnaround Plan for the world’s most successful restaurant company, which at the time had experienced six consecutive quarters of declining same-store sales. Staring directly at the camera for the video’s 23-minute duration, Easterbrook acknowledged where McDonald’s had strayed as a business and what it would do to correct course, saying things like “I will not shy away from the urgent need to reset this business,” and, “We will look to create more excitement around the brand.”

Read more about how Easterbrook has helped to turnaround McDonald’s here.

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6. Steak ‘n’ Shake Wants to Sell 400 Corporate Stores for Cheap

Steak ‘n’ Shake isn’t fooling around with its refranchising plans. The company announced August 13 it’s looking to deal its 400-plus company units (there were 401 in 2017), to “would-be entrepreneurs who want to be hands-on, single-unit owner-operators” for a paltry initial investment of $10,000. For comparison, the initial franchise fee for a Taco Bell operator is $45,000. It’s $30,000 at Blaze Pizza. Per franchise disclosure documents, the initial investment for a classic Steak 'n' Shake runs between $1.6–$2.6 million.

Read more about the refranchising initiative here.