Einstein Bros. Bagels

rank last year: 47

With domestic sales down by about $12 million, Einstein Bros. Bagels fell out of the QSR 50 and tops the Contenders list for 2012. The brand has redesigned its options for value-conscious customers, including the new $3.99 Everyday Value Offers. With an expansion of its Smart Choices options, Super Grain bagels, and specialty beverage and low-fat smoothie lineup, Einstein Bros. hopes hitting industry trends will get it back into the upper ranks.


McAlister’s Deli

rank last year: 51

New permanent and LTO menu offerings helped McAlister’s to 11 consecutive quarters of positive sales growth, including a same-store sales increase of 9.2 percent at company-owned restaurants during 2012’s fourth quarter. It’s grown to more than 315 delis now and expects to open 11 more units this year. System-wide sales were up by about $35 million in 2012, no doubt thanks in part to the 23 million glasses of Famous Sweet Tea it sold last year.


Auntie Anne’s

rank last year: 52

The pretzel chain rolled out its first whole-grain pretzel in January 2013 and made its way into Vietnam, Auntie Anne’s 25th country. In fact, overseas growth is booming—a co-branded Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s store that opened in Port of Spain, Trinidad, was the 1,000th international location for parent FOCUS Brands. On its own, Auntie Anne’s added some 100 domestic stores and improved sales by nearly $30 million in 2012.



rank last year: 50

The slider chain of the Southeast fell out of the top 50 this year as company headquarters moved a bit farther south, to quick-serve mecca Atlanta from its home of 70-plus years, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Executives are envisioning big changes along with the move, though so far sales are relatively flat and store count was down by seven in 2012 over 2011.



rank last year: 49

While its sales fell by about $20 million and unit count dropped by 20, Sbarro has its eyes on growth, especially in foreign countries. Of about 1,000 units, 400 are outside the U.S. About 40 more will soon come on board in Peru and Columbia. A new recipe launch in the fall of 2012 sought to bring the chain back to its roots. The Neapolitan-style pie features scratch-made dough, vine-ripened whole peeled tomatoes, and freshly shredded whole-milk Mozzarella. It’s part of a major brand relaunch that new CEO David Karam and his leadership team hope will get Sbarro back into competition with the four major pizza brands.


Firehouse Subs

rank last year: 59

Sales exploded in 2012 for Firehouse Subs, with a finish of about $380 million in sales—nearly $100 million above 2011’s total system-wide sales. Likewise, 2012’s store count was up nearly 100 units, bringing Firehouse to nearly 600 restaurants. It also became the first chain to launch the Coca-Cola Freestyle fountain in all of its stores in 2012.


Cold Stone Creamery

rank last year: 55

Celebrating 25 years in the ice cream segment, Cold Stone Creamery entered its 19th country and took its first bite out of Africa with the 2012 announcement of Egyptian stores. With about four in 10 stores outside the U.S., the brand is expanding its footprint even further, with announcements of new stores in Nigeria, the Philippines, and Bangladesh. Domestic news isn’t as cheery: The chain’s sales and store count once again took a tumble in 2012.


Noodles & Company

rank last year: N/A

After opening its 300th store last summer, Contenders newbie Noodles & Company now has more than 320 units in 23 states. In 2012, the brand upped the service at some stores with the addition of hosts who greet guests, refill drinks, and deliver food. It also added a new protein choice to the menu: naturally raised pork, available in a Barbecue Pork Mac and a Peppery Pork Sandwich. The brand’s success led the company to file for an IPO earlier this year.


Au Bon Pain

rank last year: 56

The French-inspired Au Bon Pain continued its quest for quality with a menu change in 2012 that swapped Romaine lettuce for mesclun and arugula. It also rolled out a new line of “oven-hot-all-the-way-through” sandwiches that are designed to outlast those from the competition. In early 2013, the company announced that it would transition to serving cage-free eggs exclusively by 2017.


Jersey Mike’s

rank last year: N/A

Premium ingredients and strategic growth with multiunit franchisees has put Jersey Mike’s into the Contenders for the first time. Click here to find out how the brand plans to crack the top 50.


Taco John’s

rank last year: 57

Change is in the air at Taco John’s as the last year brought about a leadership switch, including a new CEO and vice president of operations from Arby’s, a new chief development officer, and a new vice president for franchise development. The Tex-Mex chain also introduced some new flavors in July with its Santa Fe Burritos and Bowls. Executives are betting that new leadership will prompt growth, though its 2012 store count was down by 12.


Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes

rank last year: 58

More than 100,000 fans participated in an amped-up version of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes’ annual “Taste the World” campaign. A robust microsite and active social media presence gave the company half a million page views. And while the sustainability-minded chain didn’t make it into this year’s QSR 50, it’s hoping its intense social media focus will help it gain more loyal customers.


Corner Bakery Café

rank last year: 62

Sales grew for Corner Bakery Café by more than $35 million in 2012. And while the unit count inched up by only 18 units, the brand has big things in store for the near future. Current agreements will nearly double Corner Bakery Café’s footprint. In 2012, it signed 10 new area development agreements—more than doubling its previous best—that will eventually add 125 new cafés to the system.



rank last year: 61

To bring families together, Fuddruckers and parent company Luby’s opened a new cobranded store in Houston in 2012. With separate kitchens and dining rooms, the side-by-side restaurants offer a space for compromise, giving options for both kids and adults. The Texas-born Fuddruckers will soon bring its “World’s Greatest Hamburgers” to Aruba and Panama with an agreement for up to 10 stores between the two.



rank last year: 64

Schlotzsky’s got a facelift in 2012 with a system-wide rebranding and reimaging of all 340 stores. All the sandwich chain’s franchise agreements now include tri-branding of Schlotzsky’s, Cinnabon, and Carvel. Sales were up by $27 million in 2012, the seventh consecutive year of positive same store-sales growth. In the last year, the chain has chartered its way into new markets in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Orange County, California.

*Includes figures estimated by Technomic Inc.
Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Growth, Story