A Birthday Bash

    Quick serves celebrate anniversary milestones with promotions, limited-time offers, and brand revamps.
    Growth | September 2014 | Tamara Omazic

    flickr / Thomas Hawk

    At 95, A&W is one of the oldest fast-food businesses in operation.

    From a 95-year-old fast-food founding father to a five-year-old upstart, several quick-serve brands celebrate important anniversaries this year. While some have been modest in their celebrations, others are throwing company-wide bashes and passing on savings to guests through promotional deals. A select few are even taking the special occasion to revamp.

    Here are 18 brands celebrating milestones in 2014—and how each has left its mark on the rest of the industry.

     

    Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint

    5 years

    Atlanta-based Uncle Maddio’s rang in five years with accelerated growth plans and a commitment to its “Served with Love” motto. At 19 units strong, the fast-casual pizza chain has a presence in 16 states and nearly 200 stores in development. To ensure quality consistency across all locations, the brand began offering a guarantee to its guests: If a customer isn’t completely satisfied with his or her experience, the pizza joint will build a new pie or issue a refund.

    In January, as a way to bring customers into the brand’s celebration, Uncle Maddio’s launched a $5.55 pizza deal on Mondays at its original Atlanta location, extending the promotion to all units in March.

    Shake Shack

    10 years

    What began as a humble hot dog cart in New York City’s Madison Square Park grew into a 23-unit better-burger brand with a cult following across the East Coast in 10 short years, much to the surprise of company owners.

    “We never intended to build a second Shake Shack; this was a restaurant that was meant to be a little kiosk that supported the park,” says CEO Randy Garutti. “It took us almost five years to build a second one at the end of 2008.”

    The brand’s loyal fans were treated to a weeklong celebration in early June at the original Shake Shack location, when its executives teamed up with five fine-dining chefs, including Daniel Boulud and David Chang, to present special-edition burgers. The week culminated with a blowout celebration on June 12 with live music, free birthday cake, and a specialty beer on tap at Madison Square Park.

    “It turned into something bigger than we ever dreamed,” Garutti says. “People waited five or six hours for burgers.”

    Brand executives are approaching the next 10 years of national and international growth with a commitment to the Shack’s roots. “The bigger we get, the smaller we need to act,” Garutti says. “When we decide to act small and do things like what we did with our celebration, people remember why Shake Shack is what it is. That gives us great confidence for decades to come.”

    Wetzel’s Pretzels

    20 years

    A fresh-baked soft pretzel is the vessel for culinary innovation that’s helped California-based Wetzel’s Pretzels reach its 20-year milestone. With a menu of savory and sweet options that includes flavors like Almond Crunch and Jalapeño Cheese Melt, the pretzel brand has expanded its footprint across the western U.S. and into international markets, with new units in Brazil, Malaysia, and Russia opening this year.

    A constant flow of limited-time specials keeps Wetzel’s from going stale after two decades in the limited-service business; it recently introduced Wetzel Dog Bites, a mini version of the brand’s popular pretzel-wrapped hot dog.

    Firehouse Subs

    20 years

    The folks at Firehouse Subs aren’t sounding any alarms for the sandwich franchise’s 20th birthday, but they are continuing to churn out what’s helped the brand grow to 770-plus units in the U.S.: good food and community engagement.

    On the heels of a record-breaking 2013, the brand rolled out its Hearty & Flavorful, Under 500 Calories menu, featuring six sandwiches and four chopped salads, to appeal to the growing number of health-conscious consumers. It’s also continuing to raise funds for the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, which donates millions annually to public safety organizations and first responders in communities across the country.

    Wingstop

    20 years

    Garland, Texas, is the birthplace of this chicken-wing brand poised for continued growth across the U.S. and in various international markets. After celebrating the opening of the brand’s 600th unit, Wingstop executives announced aggressive expansion plans along the East Coast, with a focus on markets populated with young and ethnically diverse consumers. Upping the ante overseas, Wingstop also increased its unit count in Russia, Mexico, and Singapore and planted its flag in the Philippines and Indonesia.

    The Wingstop menu also had some festive additions for the 20-year anniversary. In March, guests were treated to a new Chili Lime flavor, and the popular Mango Habanero LTO made a return for summer to appease consumer demand.

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    Bruster’s Real Ice Cream

    25 years

    Founder Bruce Reed opened the first Bruster’s in Bridgewater, Pennsylvania, in 1989, and this year, the chain is celebrating the only way it knows how: with a special-edition ice cream flavor inspired by Reed’s legacy. Black Cherry Chocolate Chunk was the special flavor only available in July. Also during that month, the ice cream chain ran a “25 Days of Selfies” contest, encouraging guests to snap a selfie, with or without ice cream, and send it to Bruster’s via text. Eligible entries were shared on the brand’s Facebook page, and select winners were rewarded with coupons and gift cards.

    Great Wraps

    25 years

    As a fast casual established on the principle of offering guests better-for-you menu items, Great Wraps found its edge early on. The brand has tentative plans to commemorate its 25-year milestone in the fourth quarter, but its executives are more focused on ensuring Great Wraps sees another 25 years.

    “To not evolve is to die, and we’ve seen plenty of that in the industry,” says chairman Mark Kaplan. “We haven’t thought about that milestone that much because we’re so focused on the future.”

    Kaplan says Great Wraps has always offered menu items inspired by global flavors that consumers, especially Millennials, now crave. The chain’s lineup of hot wraps, sandwiches, and bowls includes tastes of Mediterranean, Italian, and Asian cuisine with offerings such as the Feta Portabella Sandwich and Orange Chicken Wrap. Even its classic American fare reflects diverse regional tastes: The So-Cal Salad includes grilled chicken and avocado, and the brand offers its own spin on the Philly cheesesteak.

    “We’re very proud to be a brand that can survive the times,” Kaplan says. “We constantly measure what customers want and slowly tweak the brand. There’s a fine balance between adjusting the brand and changing that brand’s identity.”

    McAlister’s Deli

    25 years

    McAlister’s Deli has come a long way since founder Don Newcomb opened the first unit in a converted gas station in Oxford, Mississippi, but the menu’s foundation of hearty deli food remains intact.

    Anniversary celebrations kicked off in 2014 with McAlister’s debut of a new Lite Choose Two menu option, highlighting the chain’s commitment to better-for-you offerings. Featuring a variety of low-calorie sandwiches, spuds, salads, and soups, the menu offers pairings ranging from 300 to 500 calories. The franchise doubled down on that commitment in February with a sweepstakes promoting the low-calorie menu that engaged its Facebook fans with an interactive game.

    In addition to refining the menu, the McAlister’s Deli team amped up development thanks to investments from First Franchise Capital, Balboa Capital, and Franchise America Finance for remodeling and equipment upgrades.

    Culver’s

    30 years

    Craig Culver combined his mother’s love of hamburgers with his passion for fresh frozen custard in a single restaurant concept that debuted in the family’s hometown of Sauk City, Wisconsin. Though Culver’s began franchising in 1990, the company remains family owned with more than 450 locations across the U.S. Its signature Butter Burgers have seen some updates over the years with recent LTO examples that include the Pepper Grinder Pub Burger, and it continually churns out new frozen custard flavors and Concrete Mixers.

    To celebrate 30 years, the brand enlisted its social media fan base to share stories of their favorite visit to a Culver’s restaurant for the chance to win a $30 gift card, showcasing the winners’ pictures and quotes on its website at the end of the promotion.

    Papa John’s

    30 years

    Kentucky-based Papa John’s celebrated its 30-year milestone in January with an anniversary-themed promotion for guests, offering a large one-topping pizza for 30 cents with the purchase of any large pizza at regular price. And the deals continued as the pizza chain’s biggest plays of the year centered on sporting event promotions.

    Enlisting Denver Broncos quarterback and Papa John’s franchisee Peyton Manning to star in a commercial with founder John Schnatter, the brand got fans excited about its role as the Official Pizza of the National Football League and Super Bowl XLVIII with game-day discounts. Schnatter then teamed up with Indiana Pacers’ Paul George for a commercial promoting NBA playoff deals. And things got patriotic when Papa John’s helped rally support for the U.S. soccer team’s FIFA World Cup performance with a half-off deal that hinged on the team scoring at least two goals each game.

    Rita’s Italian Ice

    30 years

    Former firefighter Bob Tumolo was battling a particularly hot Pennsylvania summer when he came up with the idea for a quick-serve concept rooted in a Greco-Roman staple: water ice. Named for Tumolo’s wife, Rita’s Italian Ice puts a contemporary spin on the summer treat with flavors like chocolate peanut butter, honeydew, and guava. The brand also offers Cream Ice, custard, and various blended iterations of the three basic items such as Gelati, a layering of ice and custard, and the Misto beverage line.

    Rita’s celebrated its 30th birthday with an in-store sweepstakes promoting its Wild Berry Italian Ice LTO. And in April, the chain highlighted its Birthday Cake Milkshake as its Milkshake of the Month.

     

    Blimpie

    50 years

    Blimpie paid homage to its Hoboken, New Jersey, roots with the Hoboken Hero LTO to celebrate its golden anniversary. Loaded with pepperoni, salami, prosciuttini, and Provolone, it’s a savory Italian sub that Steve Evans, vice president of marketing, jokes has been 50 years in the making.

    “We’re very proud of this milestone, and for any brand to be around for 50 years is a big deal,” Evans says. “We wanted to find a way to celebrate the entire year.”

    And celebrate it did with various promotions and festivities across the franchise, including a founders’ event held at the original New Jersey location and a 50-cent deal on best-selling items on April 4, the chain’s actual birthday.

    “As far as the future goes, we’re focusing on growth, product innovation, and technology,” Evans says. “We just finalized our newest store design last year. … We’ve gone with a more sleek, modern approach.”

    The new design boasts bright colors and Americana photography to highlight its tagline, “America’s Sub Shop,” and it’ll help the brand expand its nontraditional portfolio, an important avenue for future growth, Evans adds. Blimpie’s investment in technology touch points paid off in late 2013 when the brand unveiled its Blimpie Run app, which prompted an opt-in rate of nearly 38 percent to the chain’s email club.

    “That was just one example of how we want to be relevant to the Millennial demographic,” Evans says of the app. “Everything we have, we want to make sure it has some tie to technology so we can close the loop between the way we communicate with our customers in our stores and the way we communicate with our customers online.”

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    Del Taco

    50 years

    Founder Ed Hackbarth opened the first Del Taco in Barstow, California, touting a Mexican-inspired menu of tacos, tostadas, cheeseburgers, and fries. And in celebrating the chain’s 50th birthday, the brand’s new leadership brought back three throwback menu items: the Bun Taco, made with seasoned beef and Cheddar cheese in a sesame seed bun; the Small Taco Salad; and the Orange Shake.

    “We tapped into the nostalgia of the brand,” says John Cappasola, Del Taco’s chief brand officer. “We’ve got an off-menu following, and the Bun Taco has been a regularly ordered off-menu item for years. It was originally on the Del Taco menu.”

    It’s not all old school at Del Taco, though. The brand’s made efforts to propel its image forward with its “Unfreshing believable” campaign, showcasing its freshly grilled chicken, slow-cooked beans, and hand-grated Cheddar cheese.

    “What’s really allowed us to thrive is the original vision for the company; some things just haven’t changed, and that’s the thought of providing fresh food to order with convenient, fast service,” says CEO Paul Murphy. “We’ve adapted that to bring the freshness front and center and moved to a quality and value position.”

    The freshness proposition is coupled with the brand’s 2013 launch of the Buck & Under menu and this year’s introduction of turkey as a protein option. “At 50 years old, you’ve got to get in shape, and now we have, and we’re ready for the next 50 years,” Murphy says.

    Tim Hortons

    50 years

    Canadian staple Tim Hortons hopped in a time machine to celebrate its golden anniversary. The brand re-created the original Tim Hortons store in Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto, serving up coffee and doughnuts from the original menu with the help of its first few employees. It also brought in some of its first customers, including several legendary National Hockey League players from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Footage from the day-long celebration was featured in a promotional video that ran on the brand’s YouTube page.

    Though Tim Hortons’ presence in the U.S. isn’t as old—the first unit opened in Amherst, New York, in 1985—it is gaining momentum. The brand now operates more than 800 locations across 11 states and is seeing increased opportunity with a newly expanded lineup of sandwiches and bowls for the lunch daypart.

    Villa Enterprises

    50 years

    Villa Enterprises began as a New York City pizzeria next to the iconic Ed Sullivan Theater and grew over the course of 50 years to an international organization with multiple quick-serve brands under its umbrella. Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen, the rebranded pizza concept, celebrated its birthday with guests through a sweepstakes for a trip to the city where it all started. And its affiliated brands, which include Green Leaf’s, Bananas, and South Philly Steak and Fries, celebrated growth across various mall locations in 2014.

    Steak ’n Shake

    80 years

    Founded in Normal, Illinois, in 1934, Steak ’n Shake appealed to guests as the brand that featured beef ground in-house. And though entrepreneur Sardar Biglari bought the company in 2008, it continues to boast quality steakburgers and milkshakes at a quick-service value.

    To celebrate 80 years in the business, Steak ’n Shake threw a birthday bash across all of its locations on June 7, during which it hoped to break the Guinness World Record for the largest birthday sing-along.

    Carvel

    80 years

    Eighty years in, Carvel is answering increased competition with a brand refresh. The ice cream chain unveiled a new store design that highlights its strongest product offerings with dipping cabinets and high-tech menuboards and draws customers in with its iconic red color. Coupled with an updated logo, the design served as the blueprint for new store openings, which company executives expected 20 of this year.

    It wasn’t all work and no play for Carvel’s 80th birthday, though. The brand kicked off its summer-long celebration with Free Cone Day on May 1 and drummed up participation in its Fudgie Funatics loyalty club with a drawing for a free year of ice cream.

    A&W Restaurants

    95 years

    When you’re oft referred to as the nation’s oldest fast-food franchise, 95 years is nothing to scoff at. The A&W brand has been through many iterations over its long history, from opening initially as a root beer stand in Lodi, California, to adapting with the automotive industry first as a drive-in and later as a drive thru. Later in the 20th century, A&W cobranded with former Yum! Brands peers KFC and Long John Silver’s. Now the company looks to stand all on its own.

    “We have a lot of cobrand operations we’re supporting, but as we look toward refreshing the brand, it’s really a focus on the base brand,” says CEO Kevin Bazner. “It’s making the brand current to what today’s consumer needs are while paying a tremendous amount of respect to our 95 years of heritage.”

    A&W is testing a refreshed store prototype in Lexington, Kentucky, Bazner says. Officially opened in late July, the first prototype boasts an updated logo and a modern interior with wooden tables, bold orange splashes, and table numbers inspired by vintage racecars.

    “We’ve looked back to look forward, and a lot of the design elements we’re bringing forward are elements that are a vibrant part of our history, we’ve just refreshed them for 2014,” Bazner says. “The consumer gives us credit for being higher quality, higher price. In today’s environment, we’re playing off of that by ensuring all of our products are made with the freshest of ingredients and done to order as much as possible.”

    Most importantly, the menu features items that are uniquely A&W, Bazner says. The lineup includes burgers, chicken tenders, chicken sandwiches, and, of course, root beer. That iconic menu item got its own celebration day on August 6.