Web Exclusive | December 2016 | By Sam Oches

QSR’s 8 Top Stories of 2016

From drive-thru trends to better pizza, here's a look at the articles that generated the most buzz in 2016.
Chick-fil-A earned top marks in our Drive-Thru Study for customer service. Chick-fil-A/Tom Mileshko

These were the most popular stories on QSRmagazine.com this year.

1. 9 Fast-Food Trends for 2016

We pored over 2016 forecasts from more than a dozen restaurant experts and research firms and concluded which of their predicted trends would have the greatest impact on the limited-service restaurant industry. In some cases, those trends simply indicated a tipping point for matters that have been percolating for several years. Other trends were new, the result of an industry that is adapting quickly to its constantly changing customer base.

All of them, we believed, were sure to leave their mark on quick-service and fast-casual restaurants in 2016. How’d we do? Find out here.

2. The 2016 QSR 50

Fast casual has stormed the QSR 50 in the last few years, with Panera Bread entering the top 10 and Chipotle close at its heels. That trend continued in 2015; Panera and Chipotle each padded their sales, with the latter leap-frogging both Sonic and KFC in the rankings. (Of course, Chipotle’s food-safety woes struck at the end of 2015, a sales hit that will likely be reflected in the 2017 QSR 50). Elsewhere in fast casual, a pair of sandwich chains—Jersey Mike’s and Firehouse Subs—continued their incredible momentum up the list, while Wingstop similarly managed to jump multiple spots in the rankings.

Learn more about this year’s QSR 50—and how the biggest quick-service and fast-casual companies stack up against each other.

3. Clean Machine

Papa John’s menu cleanup machine went into overdrive. The ingredient-focused pizza chain announced that it removed yet another consumer-targeted ingredient from its food menu: high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

The switch—from HFCS to sugar—was made at all 3,290 Papa John’s locations nationwide, said Sean Muldoon, chief ingredient officer. With that action, Papa John’s became the first national pizza chain to remove HFCS from its entire food menu.

4. The 10 Most Iconic College Restaurants in America

These quick-serve restaurants are located in ideal demographic markets on college campuses, which means they’re bringing in big revenue—sometimes well after midnight. But late-night pizza is just the beginning.

From subs to ice cream sandwiches to barbecue, it’s clear what the students crave: quality, accessible, and customizable food in a fun atmosphere. Here are some of the most successful quick-serve restaurants on college campuses across the country.

5. 2016 Best Franchise Deals

The Best Franchise Deals are back—albeit with a fresh twist.

For the last six years, QSR has brought you an annual look at the 10—12 quick-service and fast-casual concepts that provide franchisees the best return on their investment (ROI). In this year’s seventh-annual report, we’re doing something a little different; we’ve partnered with Franchise Business Review (FBR), a leading market research firm specializing in franchisee satisfaction and performance, to assess the top industry deals. FBR brings a valuable perspective to the table: The firm offers a look behind the curtain to help determine not only companies’ financial success, but also intangibles like franchisor support and overall system satisfaction.

Here are 10 brands with a convincing story to tell prospective franchisees.

6. 2016 QSR Drive-Thru Study

Things may change rapidly in the limited-service restaurant industry, but there’s at least one thing that always manages to stay the same: the importance of the drive thru. Across the industry, companies regularly see 60—70 percent of their business come through the outdoor lane, with customers expecting speed and convenience more than ever before.

After two years exploring how certain dayparts and menu categories shaped the drive-thru experience, our Drive-Thru Study this year is back to breaking down the data by chain, researching 11 quick serves and four fast casuals to find out where they land when it comes to critical drive-thru metrics such as speed of service, order accuracy, and customer service.

Here’s how the brands performed in this year’s study, along with an inside look at how eight of these operators are innovating their drive-thru operation.

7. How Starbucks Reinvented the Customer Experience in the Drive Thru

Early on, Starbucks’ customers told the company they wanted a drive-thru option. But several years ago, Starbucks’ drive thrus had “hit a wall.” They lacked differentiation; communications were limited to menuboards. The brand was nowhere near best in class. The vision was to find ways to think differently about the drive thru. What could be done to speed throughput, increase transactions, provide better service, and grow ticket? What could be done to make the Starbucks’ drive-thru experience dazzle its customers? Where to start?

The answers to these questions show a company willing to change in order to generate continuous improvement.

8. The Secret to Sweetgreen’s Success

It’s easy to see why investors and media alike are rushing to christen Sweetgreen the next great fast casual to redefine American dining. With demand for fresh, premium food at an all-time high—and with a certain burrito slinger out of Denver licking its wounds after a food-borne illness nightmare—the stage is set for sweetgreen to capture that “it factor” that could help it expand from its 40 units in major foodie hubs and become a national favorite of the younger generations (and generations to come).

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