Each month, QSR singles out the quick-service and fast-casual brands we think will make a splash in the industry. Sometimes we’re right, and sometimes we’re… well, not. So which Ones to Watch brands are still on fire, and which ones have had their growth hopes doused? Here’s a look back at 15 Ones to Watch brands we’ve featured since 2007—those that are hot, those that are not, and those that are somewhere in between.
Originally featured: July 2008
Then: 18 units • Now: 57 units
Despite experiencing one of the worst U.S. recessions in
several decades and competing with a number of strong concepts within the quick-service pizza sector, Toppers Pizza tripled its store count over the last six years.
“[Since 2008], not a lot really has changed other than getting better at what we do,” says Chris Cheek, chief development officer for Toppers. “It’s really refining the message; refining the interior of your stores to resonate with that message that you’ve refined; and getting better and smarter about site selection, franchisee selection, and all the support systems that go around that.”
Cheek says Toppers’ variety of house pizzas, its low start-up costs, and its strategic marketing campaign help the brand differentiate itself from others in the booming pizza delivery industry.
“We have 16 unique house pizzas. You’ll see tater tots on a pizza at Toppers, and macaroni and cheese, along with the usual suspects: pepperoni, pepperoni and sausage, and so forth,” he says. “We have these house pizzas you can’t really get anywhere else, and they aren’t just quirky toppings. We design them from a flavor profile standpoint so they do taste great in addition to being very unique.”
Toppers limits its necessary square footage by eliminating the dining room space. Cheek says this cuts down on start-up costs and makes it easier to find suitable locations (and also makes it an appealing franchise opportunity; see 2014 Best Franchise Deals).
“From a unit-level economic perspective, our model is attractive; it works,” Cheek says.
Originally featured: December 2009 • Then: 7 units • Now: 43 units
Elevation Burger, a brand committed to fresh, organic burgers, has grown six-fold since it was originally featured in 2009. CEO Rick Altizer attributes this impressive growth to the brand’s made-to-order, better-burger concept.
“Back in 2009, that was kind of a big idea. It still is a very big idea,” Altizer says. “We are still a very young brand, but we’re very much committed to the same core principles we started with. What still attracts new franchisees today is this commitment to the fresh, organic, made-to-order, premium burgers. It’s a better way to eat, and it’s better for you.”
Initially, the brand emphasized the phrase “ingredients matter” to inform guests of its commitment to premium products. However, as consumers became more familiar with the concept, Elevation Burger shifted its tagline to “above and beyond good.” Altizer says Elevation Burger goes above and beyond to provide tasty, suitable offerings for health-conscious consumers. The fast casual offers lettuce wraps, organic burgers, veggie burgers, premium dips, and hand-spun milkshakes; options are available for customers with gluten intolerance, nut allergies, and other dietary restrictions.
While the food has remained the same at Elevation Burger, Altizer says, the franchisee base has evolved over the last five years.
“The strength and diversity of our franchisee base is a real differentiation between now and then. We were so young and so small,” Altizer says. “[Another] change would be the growth we found in the Middle East. … Our international division is a reality that we didn’t yet have developed in 2009. It would be a big part of our growth story for the future.”
Freebirds World Burrito
Originally featured: October 2010 • Then: 35 units • Now: 108 units
Freebirds World Burrito’s expansion efforts have soared over the last four years thanks to the three C’s: culture, creativity, and communication, says senior vice president of operations Bobby Shaw. He adds that the brand has begun to resonate with a larger audience, leading to growth that surpassed expectations.
“The thing that’s probably changed the most for us is just that we have begun to really start to look at growth in a way that is more organic,” Shaw says. “It’s all about creating a culture, so … becoming a culture that is beginning to attract not only guests, but also more top-performing employees, as well.”
Brand creativity has been key in developing this company culture. Freebirds encourages individuality among employees and does not enforce a strict dress code. It also emphasizes that its “tribe” (employees) can come in to work and be their own person.
“What really sets us apart is that we’re really involving the tribes in how we set the goals for the organization. … We want them to be fully invested in what it is that we’re doing,” Shaw says. “We want to communicate with them on a regular basis to make sure that they know where we’re going. We ask for their feedback.”
Freebirds hopes to continue its impressive growth in the coming years by increasing its online presence through social media, and finding better ways to interact with consumers as they enter the restaurant.
Originally featured: July 2010 • Then: 60 units • Now: 321 units
Red Mango hit its 300th location milestone earlier this year, and Jim Notarnicola, the brand’s vice president of franchising and marketing, says maintaining relevancy with consumers has been key for its ongoing growth.
“We built the brand based on three ideas: really great-tasting products that are very healthful and served up in a stylish way,” Notarnicola says.
Red Mango has managed to preserve its product quality while also adapting to the always-changing quick-service environment. During the past few years, the brand has experimented with smoothie offerings, a variety of store formats, and light lunch menus.
“[Red Mango] has evolved quite extensively,” Notarnicola says. “We started with what became our ‘world famous frozen yogurt.’ Then we expanded fairly quickly into smoothies. We’re now quite extensively in the smoothie business. Our latest announcement is that we’re going into fresh, cold-squeezed juices, which is a nice extension from smoothies.”
Notarnicola says Red Mango’s smoothies and juices are a hit with health-conscious, active-lifestyle consumers. The brand’s target demographic, predominantly active, young women, tends to be cognizant of nutrition and has encouraged the brand to pursue these offerings.
In addition to catching the healthy lifestyle wave, Red Mango has made its store format flexible, ensuring its success in a variety of locations. Notarnicola says the brand has added self-service, kiosk, and nontraditional formats to help franchisees stay flexible.
Originally featured: September 2010 • Then: 13 units • Now: 21 units
In part due to its 2012 acquisition by coffee industry leader Starbucks, La Boulange has become an overnight success with consumers. La Boulange spokeswoman Lily Gluzberg says the brand’s continued commitment to its French-inspired fare and teaming with Starbucks have contributed to the bakery’s tremendous growth.
“The La Boulange footprint continues to grow through the partnership with Starbucks,” Gluzberg writes in an email to QSR. “La Boulange is the platform for all food in Starbucks stores, including soon-to-come lunch and evening savory items, and is expected to reach customers in more than 7,000 U.S. company-operated Starbucks stores by 2014 year-end.”
Gluzberg says this partnership with Starbucks will not affect the brand’s French-inspired offerings. La Boulange also remains devoted to its San Francisco Bay–area roots.
“The store expansion in the Bay Area stems from customer appreciation for skillfully crafted, authentic French offerings made using high-quality, fresh ingredients, and the brand’s commitment to bringing the artistry of the French bakery to the marketplace alongside an uncompromising customer experience,” Gluzberg says. “La Boulange and [founder] Pascal [Rigo] are also committed to giving back to the local community that it calls home through various programs and events, allowing the brand to stay connected to its community and San Francisco roots.”
Beyond the baked goods La Boulange is known for, it also continues to serve brunch, lunch, and dinner menu items in several locations. The concept offers a range of options, from salads and sandwiches to omelets, burgers, pomme frites, and a Maine lobster sandwich in some stores.
Originally featured: February 2008
Then: 6 units • Now: 0 units
When discussing potential challenges in 2008, Rasoee president Nipun Sharma voiced his concerns for running a fast-casual Indian restaurant. Sharma said Indian food is not only one of the most difficult cuisines to prepare due to the 20–30 spices added throughout the cooking process, but it also was not yet very popular with North American consumers.
Rasoee had plans to grow from six to 20 locations by the end of 2008, along with dreams of worldwide expansion, but those dreams did not become reality. Whether due to the recession or the difficulty in maintaining an Indian fast casual, the brand no longer has any operating stores.
Originally featured: May 2008
Then: 32 U.S. units • Now: 11 U.S. units (129 international)
In 2007, up-and-coming European chain Vapiano landed its first store in the Washington, D.C., area. President Kent Hahne believed Vapiano’s high-style, luxurious atmosphere, innovative technology, and fresh, high-quality Italian offerings would set the concept apart from competitors. And while the learning curve for a new chip-card ordering technology proved troublesome for the first Vapiano U.S. locations, the chain continued to grow.
However, relatively high start-up and operational costs have negatively affected expansion efforts in the U.S. After six years, Vapiano has only 11 domestic locations operating in medium- and large-size markets.
Originally featured: April 2009 • Then: 11 units • Now: 3 units
Rewind five years: Pretzel Boy’s is at the top of its game. The chain had just snagged “Best of Philly” and “Best of Delaware” awards. President and CEO Tim Dever was particularly proud of the attention Pretzel Boy’s gained when the brand was featured on the Food Network’s “Throwdown with Bobby Flay.” Stores were churning out between 3,500 and 4,500 pretzels a day.
Today, however, the Pretzel Boy’s corporate website is no longer in operation, while the brand’s presence remains only in three separate franchised locations.
Originally featured: August 2009 • Then: 40 units • Now: 0 units
After overcoming the Hurricane Katrina devastation, Catfish One executives believed they were on the road to recovery and growth. The brand rebuilt three stores following the hurricane and modified numerous locations to provide seating and a drive thru.
In 2009, president Joe-Michael Robertson said the brand would take the tortoise approach to expansion instead of the hare. But slow and steady didn’t win the race; Catfish One no longer has any stores in operation.
Originally featured: April 2011 • Then: 63 units • Now: 44 units
In 2011, New York–born Tasti D-Lite’s expansion hopes were high. The frozen dessert concept had received a visit from country music superstar Taylor Swift and had gained unsolicited exposure on TV shows like “Sex in the City” and “The Apprentice.” CEO Jim Amos believed Tasti D-Lite’s healthier product would set the concept apart from the growing crop of dessert brands.
But the brand’s plan to open 50 domestic and 14 international stores that year fell flat. While Tasti D-Lite has remained a leader in New York City, the concept’s presence has lagged in other markets.
Originally featured: May 2008
Then: 27 units • Now: 32 units
George Couchell’s mixed-menu concept continues to thrive—in the Charlotte, North Carolina, market. Couchell opened his first Showmars in 1982, and by 2008, the brand had grown to 27 stores within a 40-mile radius of Charlotte. Five more locations have since opened.
But the decision to remain only in the Charlotte area may have thwarted this concept’s growth capability; as Couchell noted in 2008, his No. 1 competitor is a new Showmars. Whenever the company opens a restaurant within five miles of an existing store, business initially drops 5–10 percent at the older store, Couchell said.
Originally featured: November 2008 • Then: 11 units • Now: 12 units
After purchasing the Minnesota-based Baja Sol chain in 2006, Bridget Sutton had plans to turn the family-friendly fresh-Mex concept into a national success. In 2008, the brand was poised to grow beyond its Twin Cities roots. That year, two new restaurants were slated to open in Chicago and Minnesota, and a dozen more stores were under development in existing markets and San Diego.
So far, though, growth outside its home market has failed to take off. Baja Sol has 10 corporate locations and two franchise locations, all of which are located in Minnesota. Sutton, meanwhile, is no longer with the company.
Originally featured: June 2009 • Then: 7 units • Now: 4 units
Warren Brown’s Love Café, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is built around Brown’s passion for cakes. After dropping his career as an attorney in 2000, Brown tried his luck with baking and, before long, had become an overnight success, with appearances on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “The Today Show.”
But, just as Brown had started writing his second book and opened his seventh Love Café location, the recession hit. Today, after closing three locations in the last five years, Brown remains optimistic and recently announced the release of his fourth cookbook.
House of Bread Bakery Cafe
Originally featured: September 2010 • Then: 7 units • Now: 9 units
The House of Bread Bakery Cafe has had its fair share of ups and downs in the past decade. The California-based brand grew to 10 locations between 1996 and 2003, but a low-carb craze in the late 2000s drove sales down and ultimately led to the closing of three stores.
Founder Sheila McCann was optimistic in 2010 and spoke of changes to the brand’s design and menu. Since then, House of Bread has opened two new stores and seems to be getting its bearings once again.
Originally featured: March 2011 • Then: 135 units • Now: 134 units
In 2011, Teriyaki Experience believed it was entering the U.S. quick-service market at the perfect time. The brand had more than 100 international locations, and president Nick Veloce thought U.S. food-court consumers were ready for a healthier, flavorful alternative to traditional American fast food. Eight U.S. units were open at the time, with 15 more set to open in the coming year.
But while the brand has continued to grow abroad, it has stalled in the States. Today, Teriyaki Experience has only two U.S. stores.