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Organic produce and clean labels aren’t just the property of regional chains and fast casuals anymore; Papa John’s is actively committing to both (although the organic push is just a small pilot program). Its new Pan Pizza and digital platform enhancements have similarly helped Papa John’s boost its credibility in the pizza game.
As the lone Asian concept on the QSR 50—one that is light-years ahead of its next closest competitor in the space—Panda Express surprisingly had never featured General Tso’s chicken on its menu before. That changed when the brand rolled it out as an LTO last year.
Whataburger’s loyal fans across the South and Plains states have a new way to interact with the brand. The company launched an app last year that not only offers a mobile payment platform, but also boasts a loyalty program that gives guests one free reward for every five visits to Whataburger.
Roark Capital, the Atlanta-based equity group that has a stake in FOCUS Brands and Arby’s, acquired a majority stake in Jimmy John’s last fall. Founder Jimmy John Liautaud stayed on as the company’s chairman and the single largest individual shareholder.
As Zaxby’s has spread its wings across the country and established itself as the pre-eminent chicken fast casual, the company has embedded itself into sports fans’ collective consciousness. Its “Fanz of Flavor” Interactive Tailgate Experience visited several college campuses during last year’s NCAA football season.
Having celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2016, Five Guys has another milestone it can boast about in the better-burger wars: In this year’s Harris Poll, it was voted customers’ favorite burger chain—ahead of beloved California stalwart In-N-Out Burger.
Culver’s CEO Phil Keiser sadly passed away last fall; CFO Joseph Koss replaced him as chief executive. The company continues to expand further from its Midwest roots, with more locations opening in the Southwest and Southeast.
Already a favorite in the South, Bojangles’ is taking its famed chicken biscuits further north, with expansion planned for the Mid-Atlantic states. The company’s new store prototype adds some modern flourishes, including a “Biscuit Theater” that showcases where the magic happens.
Steak n Shake
The 83-year-old burger chain remains an interesting enigma in the quick-service space, with news scarce and its head honcho, Sardar Biglari, a mysterious force behind the curtain. Yet Steak n Shake has steadily grown, and this year maintains its spot as the last chain into the billion-dollar-brand club.
Ever so close to crossing the billion-dollar sales threshold, Wingstop has been busy adding locations—not just in the U.S., but plenty overseas, too. Meanwhile, it’s joined some of the major quick-service brands in making investments in voice-activation, chatbot, and social media ordering platforms.