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rank last year: 12
Admittedly, some of Domino’s moves in the last year and a half land somewhere on the perplexing scale between “huh?” and “uh … OK?” There was the announcement that stores would be slowing down service on pan pizzas to give them extra attention. Then there was the assertion that any customer who asked to swap ingredients on its Artisan pies would be told “no.” And who can forget when the company said it would install cameras in restaurants so customers could watch the staff at work, Big Brother–style? Regardless, Domino’s continued its push to be a more premium brand, an effort that began with its new pizza recipe in 2010. The Handmade Pan Pizza, Parmesan Bread Bites, and gluten-free crust option gave the menu a little bit more diversity, while a new logo and “Pizza Theater” store prototype signaled that Domino’s is ready to turn its brand into a more modern experience.
Jack in the Box
rank last year: 15
Jack in the Box’s menu has always thrived on the “something for everybody” mantra, and recent development follows in the same path. Its most recent spate of new menu options includes both permanent and limited-time offerings, like the Sourdough Cheesesteak Melt, Breakfast Waffle Sandwich, Blueberry Muffin Oatmeal, Chili Cheese Curly Fries, Chipotle Chicken Club Sandwich, and Mini Corn Dogs. Jack in the Box also added four new items to its Value Menu, including Chicken Nuggets. Indeed, something for everybody.
rank last year: 14
Poor Arby’s. Here we were a year ago, ready to say the brand had broken from its sales funk. It had finally escaped the shadow of former sister brand Wendy’s and was ready to take on the world with its “Good Mood Food.” But it was not to be so. The roast beef specialist saw sales dip below $3 billion in 2012, despite a brand “refresh,” blueprints for a store redesign, and the new “Slicing Up the Truth About Freshness” ad campaign. Turkey Roaster sandwiches also joined the menuboard, which president Hala Moddelmog says the brand is working to simplify. So far, though, nothing’s really sticking. That may be why several executives—including CMO Russ Klein—have bolted for other pastures, even as new CEO Paul Brown takes the reins.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
rank last year: 17
Care to guess the new favorite catchphrase permeating the quick-service and fast-casual industries? Our money is on “The Chipotle of” (yes, that is an incomplete phrase). As fast casuals spring up like calories in a Heart Attack Grill burger, most are applying the “Chipotle model” to their business plan, wherein they let customers build their own menu options, picking from among premium ingredients in an upscale environment. So these days we have the Chipotle of pizza, the Chipotle of Mediterranean, the Chipotle of Indian food … and so on and so forth.
There is, of course, a good reason for this: Chipotle, in many ways, ushered in the new era of premium fast food, and is wildly successful at it. In 2012, that trend continued: The company added another $500 million in sales and nearly 200 stores to its domestic unit count. Chipotle also continued to push boundaries; it launched a new margarita recipe in most stores, is testing tofu Sofritas, and debuted catering in its home Colorado market. Over the course of the year, it even used more than 10 million pounds of locally sourced foods. So yeah, there’s a reason everyone is following the Chipotle model.
rank last year: 18
Outside of limited-time offers like the Buffalo Chicken and the Chicken Parmesan pizzas, Papa John’s pretty much stuck to its guns in the last year, which seems to have served it just fine: Both sales and unit count are up. Speaking of guns, Papa John’s brought on NFL superstar quarterback and all-around good guy Peyton Manning as a franchisee, which will probably benefit the brand even outside of Denver.
rank last year: 16
Like other ice cream brands, Dairy Queen is mixing things up a bit in the innovation department to keep up with frozen-yogurt chains (even though Dairy Queen still accounts for about 47 percent of the frozen dessert category’s sales). Recently, that has included a line of light smoothies and a national rollout of Orange Julius beverages. The company also doubled down on its food efforts, offering a $5 Buck Lunch deal between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. that includes a choice of one of three entrées, along with fries, a beverage, and a sundae. Its new “Fan Food” promotional campaign hopes to redirect customer perception of the brand as a simple fast-food purveyor.
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
rank last year: 20
All of that time spent rebranding Popeyes into its Louisiana Kitchen concept has paid off. In 2012—its 40th year in business—the brand enjoyed its fourth consecutive year of same-store sales and traffic increases. LTOs like its Crawfish, Rip ‘n Chick ‘n, and Cajun Surf & Turf give Popeyes a unique down-on-the-bayou niche, and its partnership with spice company Zatarain’s (for Popeyes’ Zatarain’s Butterfly Shrimp) helps solidify its authenticity. Breakfast, which Popeyes is testing in North Carolina, could be the next frontier to keep the same-store sales streak alive.