Brands are just like people; as they grow older, they mature, they change, and they suffer the same growing pains as the generations of brands that came before them. And now that the U.S. limited-service restaurant industry has been around for a century or so, brand growth can be seen just like that of a person’s, with concepts navigating the same kind of generational evolution, whether it’s an exciting coming-of-age or a treacherous midlife crisis.
This year, to honor those brands celebrating a combined 725 years’ worth of anniversaries in 2017, we break down the list of milestones by generation—from the baby boomers down to the upstart Generation Z.
Baby Boomers and Beyond
By the age of 85, most people are set in their ways. Turns out, things aren’t much different for 85-year-old hot dog brands. Papaya King still uses the same recipes founder Gus Poulos created when he founded the franks-and-tropical-drinks business in 1932. The all-beef hot dogs are still delivered fresh every day from the same manufacturer in the Bronx, “and people still line up down the block during lunch hour to enjoy the same taste they’ve been tasting for the last 85 years,” says Papaya King president Wayne Rosenbaum.
Though the New York City icon has remained identical in many ways, it’s also had to expand its horizons to stay relevant with consumers. This includes adding new toppings—bacon, coleslaw, jalapeños, and pineapple relish, for example—as well as fresh sides like curly fries, onion rings, fried pickles, and mozzarella sticks.
Over the years, the concept has gained a cult following in its hometown, with famous foodie fans like Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain, and Martha Stewart. But Rosenbaum, who joined the company in 2010, hasn’t let that support go to the brand’s head. He’s kept pace with Papaya King’s slow-and-steady growth, opening up franchising for the first time in 2013. To date, the brand only has two franchised locations in Las Vegas, but it does have its sights set on markets like Florida, California, and Arizona, where many ex-New Yorkers live and provide a built-in audience.
The brand celebrated its 85th anniversary in March by offering 32-cent franks to guests in New York, selling more than 17,500 hot dogs in two days. “The loyal following that we saw during the 85th anniversary celebration puts a smile on my face,” Rosenbaum says, “knowing that we have a New York brand we want to share with the rest of the world.”
With eight-plus decades and 350 units under its belt, the slider-sized burger brand unveiled a restaurant redesign in April featuring a brighter color scheme, LED lighting, digital menuboards, and
Though it started selling doughnuts to local grocery stores in 1937, it wasn’t until 1989 that Krispy Kreme opened its first retail-only shop. Since then, it’s grown to 1,300 units in 31 countries and celebrated its 80th anniversary in July by offering a dozen Original Glazed doughnuts for just 80 cents.
Church’s kicked off its anniversary with a 65th Birthday Cash Bash, offering guests the chance to win gift cards and cash prizes up to $6,500. It also partnered with local charities in a handful of key markets for its Days of Service campaign.
While some people approach the half-century mark with a mid-life crisis of sorts, Taco Bueno has steered clear of making drastic changes to its brand. “We continue to make the food the same way we made it 50 years ago,” says CEO Mike Roper. “We’re not taking shortcuts. We’re not being gimmicky; we’re staying true to ourselves. That in itself can be a 50-year milestone.”
As a first mover in the Tex-Mex market when it launched in 1967, Taco Bueno has enjoyed a strong foothold on its territory, even as the category has expanded over time. “We’ve been able to maintain our market share throughout the years and stay really strong in the seven states we’re in today,” Roper says.
He also credits this success to an intense focus on its customers—whom he calls “Buenoheads”—and a dedication to delivering speed and convenience. To improve the customer experience over the past five decades, the brand has introduced a number of more convenient dining options, starting with drive-thru service, which now accounts for nearly two-thirds of its business. “As long as we can stay fast and accurate, we’ll continue to drive people through there until they start flying around in spaceships,” Roper says.
At the start of 2017, Taco Bueno also launched delivery at about half of its locations, and is even testing a 24-hour drive thru in select markets. Roper says convenience—in terms of how many units the brand has, what markets it opens in, and developments like delivery, 24-hour service, and beyond—is the brand’s biggest area of opportunity moving forward. “It’s just a matter of time until drone delivery comes out,” he says of the ways in which the company might have to adapt for convenience in the future. “Or maybe we’ll be 3-D printing food at our houses.”
Last November, Bojangles’ announced a remodeling initiative to update units with WiFi, device-charging stations, and an interactive Biscuit Theater. To celebrate 40 years, Jennifer Roberts, mayor of Bojangles’ hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, proclaimed June 13 as “Bojangles’ Day.”
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
Eighteen years after founder Alvin Copeland opened his New Orleans–style chicken concept, AFC Enterprises took the brand under its wing alongside competitor Church’s Chicken. It remained an
AFC brand until February, when Popeyes was acquired by Burger King’s parent company, Restaurant Brands International, for $1.8 billion.
Since cousins William Specht and Jim Sheppard brought East Coast sandwiches to Wisconsin in 1972, the brand has become famous for serving fresh ingredients and staying active in local communities through its Make It Better Foundation. In 2016, it underwent a major makeover to update branding and streamline the look of its stores, attracting three new franchise groups in Wisconsin and Illinois.
Once a Chicago antiques store serving sandwiches to shoppers, Potbelly was purchased in 1996, turned into a fast-casual chain shortly thereafter, and was taken public in late 2013. This year, it acknowledged its 40th anniversary with a “$40K in 40 Days” campaign in May, awarding concert experiences, gift cards, and cash prizes to guests.
Freebirds World Burrito
To celebrate turning 30, Freebirds brought back fan-favorite products and promotions throughout the year, including Tattoosday—where customers who show their ink on Tuesdays receive free chips and salsa—and its much-loved Pot Brownies, baked in tiny pots.
Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard
Good Times has stayed close to home over the last three decades, keeping operations within the Colorado and Wyoming borders. It’s also taking expansion slowly this year, opening only one new restaurant and focusing instead on its full-service sister concept, Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar.
Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill
In its 25th year in business, Sharky’s expanded its lineup of Mexi-Cali recipes to include three new taco LTOs, including a Slow-Roasted Pork, Steak and Arugula, and The Roque Shrimp Taco—one of which fans could vote for in a Taco Showdown to become a permanent menu item.
Tropical Smoothie Cafe
Some brands spent the better part of the last decade trying to capture millennials’ interest. But as a millennial itself, Tropical Smoothie Cafe found the process to be pretty natural. Whether it’s the healthful smoothies and food it serves or the use of relevant technology—including the launch of a digital app last year with features like mobile pay, order ahead, and a loyalty program—Tropical Smoothie Cafe prides itself on innovation at all levels.
“We’ve led innovation in not only smoothies, but also in some areas of food, specifically over the last decade,” says CEO Mike Rotondo, citing the brand’s popular selection of flatbreads, which debuted in 2009. Rotondo says the brand was also the first national smoothie concept to serve a kale and spinach smoothie in 2013. “And it wasn’t just an OK-selling smoothie. It’s our No. 1-selling smoothie,” he says, noting that it accounted for as much as 11 percent of total sales at its peak.
While 60 percent of the brand’s sales come from smoothies, Rotondo says around 50 percent of its customers are what they call “smoothie foodies”—meaning they come to the brand not just for its signature tropical drinks, but also for its lineup of food. “However, we’ve got to continue to evolve and push that and figure out how to break the code on getting people to believe in us for that food,” he says.
In addition to delivering on millennials’ desire for bold flavors and more healthful offerings, Tropical Smoothie also places a high priority on giving back to its communities. That’s why, for the last 10 years, the brand has helped raise funds for Camp Sunshine. The organization sends children with life-threatening illnesses and their families to a camp in Maine, where parents can take part in counseling sessions while the kids enjoy activities like archery, canoeing, volleyball, and ice skating and skiing in the winter.
To celebrate the organization and its 20th anniversary, the brand created a new Sunshine Smoothie—made with orange, orange juice, banana, pineapple, and mango—which it gave away on June 16 to anyone wearing flip flops for National Flip Flop Day. (Tropical Smoothie created the holiday in 2007 as a way to ring in its 10th anniversary.) The celebration also marked the start of its annual Camp Sunshine fundraiser, led by the system’s 600-plus franchised units. “We have franchisees that in a six- or eight-week timeframe will raise over $5,000—some cafes over $10,000—for Camp Sunshine,” Rotondo says.
By 2020, the brand aims to have more than 1,000 units operating. It’s even finding success in northern markets like Michigan, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota. “It’s a brand that’s not just a warm-climate brand,” Rotondo says. “This brand is sustainable.”
Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers
Known for its cooked-to-order steakburgers and frozen custard treats, Freddy’s has grown to 268 units at press time (275 by mid-September) over 15 years in business. It shows no signs of stopping, with plans to open 60 stores this year and to enter two new states (Mississippi and Wyoming).
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
After a listeria scare in 2015, Jeni’s has returned its focus to artisan ice cream recipes dreamed up by James Beard Award winner Jeni Britton Bauer. This summer, Jeni’s continued its partnership with Stone Brewing to introduce a limited-edition Mocha Black Cherry ice cream, inspired by Stone’s Mocha IPA.
Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh
Launching as Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, the brand switched to its current moniker in 2015 to emphasize the freshness of its food. This year, it announced plans to enter the St. Louis market with 10 units, the first of which debuted over the summer.
Roti Modern Mediterranean
Rather than just dreaming about what it wants to be when it grows up, Roti has spent the last two years making tangible strides toward getting there. Though Roti’s food and cultural values evolved significantly over its first eight years in business, CEO Carl Segal says the look and feel of the brand had not.
To bring everything into alignment, Roti changed its branding and name—going from Roti Mediterranean Grill to Roti Modern Mediterranean—while also refining its brand voice and opening up the dialogue with consumers. Inside the store, it began using a neutral palette to shift the focus toward the food and allow colorful dishes to pop off the line.
“We spent the first six or seven years really getting the basics down, really getting our food down, really getting our connection to the customer down,” Segal says. “And now with the updates to the branding elements and look and feel of our restaurants, we have a platform we feel is incredibly versatile to use for the next 10 or more years as we look forward to continued growth.”
Though a handful of existing stores have received customer-facing makeovers, Segal says most of Roti’s development dollars will go toward building new units with the updated design. It plans to add 10 new locations in 2017—including stores in two new markets, Dallas and Minneapolis—in the hopes of building greater brand recognition as it matures.
“Right now, every time I say Roti, I have to start from square one and explain who we are, what we do, what we’re all about,” he says. “I look forward to a certain point when we’re a little more of a household name.”
MOOYAH Burgers, Fries & Shakes
After being acquired by a set of investment firms in May, the burger brand celebrated its 10th anniversary in July with special in-store events, donating 10 percent of all proceeds to No Kid Hungry.
To speed up service by nearly 10 percent, the salad concept stopped accepting cash at nearly all of its 60-plus locations in January. It also plans to open 30 new units by the end of 2017, bringing it that much closer to the 100-unit milestone.
Rise Biscuits Donuts
Rise finally ventured outside its home state of North Carolina this year when its opened restaurants in Georgia and Texas. It also celebrated National Donut Day in June by donating 10 percent of its sales to the Salvation Army.
To celebrate the five-year mark, PizzaRev launched its “Be Revolutionary” campaign in May, asking fans to show the company what it means to be revolutionary for a chance to win free pizza for life.