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rank last year: 19
Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. parent CKE Inc. pulled out of the IPO it was preparing last summer after investors balked at the company’s shaky financials. Investors might have been concerned about the brands’ domestic sales, but it turns out they needn’t be worried; Hardee's added nearly $100 million in sales over 2011, while Carl’s Jr. padded its count by more than $50 million. Once again the company zeroed in mostly on young hungry men, rolling out a Super Bacon Cheeseburger, a Jim Beam Bourbon Burger, and a Memphis BBQ Burger, while swapping out one commercial eye candy supermodel (Kate Upton) for another (Heidi Klum).
This profile previously stated that Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. each dropped in domestic sales, an inaccurate statement based on the fact that last year’s QSR 50 erroneously included CKE’s international sales numbers. QSR regrets the error.
rank last year: 21
The QSR 50’s lone Asian concept celebrated its 1,500th unit in 2012 by unveiling a new store prototype that nudged the brand more toward the fast-casual category. It may have been a push back against the growing crop of upstart fast-casual Asian brands, but if the company is losing market share to those brands, it isn’t showing; both sales and unit counts were up over 2011.
rank last year: 23
Like its pizza compadre Papa John’s, Little Caesars mostly focused on more of the same to account for its $200 million in additional sales over 2011 and its increase of 200 net units. This year, though, Little Caesars unveiled its DEEP! DEEP! Dish Pizza, adding a little variety to its trusty menu of $5 Hot ‘n Ready pies.
rank last year: 24
Whataburger may be 70 years old, but the ol’ stalwart has some youth left in it yet. Lately, social media has helped the regional brand collect even more passionate fans, and a recent deal to put its popular condiments on the shelves at H-E-B grocery stores should earn even more exposure among both American and Mexican consumers. Click here to find out more about how Whataburger thrives on its cult following in the South.
rank last year: 22
rank last year: 27
To know what exactly Jimmy John’s has been up to in the last year, take a spin on its “News” page online. The last update? That was in the summer … of 2010. And yet the brand crossed the $1 billion sales threshold for the first time, having added nearly $400 million in sales over 2011 and more than 200 units. You keep being you, Jimmy John’s.
Five Guys Burgers & Fries
rank last year: 25
Well, it had to happen some time. After three years of rocketing up the QSR 50—where it debuted in 2010—Five Guys finally took a step back, ceding the last spot in the top half of the QSR 50 to Jimmy John’s. It’s not to say the brand performed poorly in 2012—it added $100 million in sales to become a billion-dollar brand for the first time and tacked on 200 units to its store count—but rather that it may have finally found its place among the quick-service pack.
rank last year: 29
KFC and Chick-fil-A may be duking it out for chicken supremacy, but how many chains can say they are the “Official Chicken of College Sports” at 25 prominent higher-education institutions, including the University of Kentucky, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Indiana University? That would be one: Zaxby’s, the fast-casual chicken joint of the South, which passed Church’s to become the fourth-largest chicken purveyor while having a presence in only 13 U.S. states. Tempting LTOs like the Banana Pudding Milkshake and new meal deals like Boneless Wings spiced up the menu, and the company is testing breakfast in its Athens, Georgia, hometown that includes Southern favorites like a chicken biscuit, grits, and bacon Benedict. These menu moves—along with promotional campaigns starring B-list celebrities like David Allen Grier and Lee Ann Womack, as well as a new store prototype in development—should help Zaxby’s as the fast-casual chicken category becomes a hot new target for brands like KFC.