In the fast-evolving limited-service restaurant industry, some things are a given. McDonald’s wins the day, and it’s not even close. Chick-fil-A’s restaurants make beaucoup bucks. And Subway’s eye-popping unit count dwarfs pretty much every other company in the space.

[DOWNLOAD] QSR 50 Data 2008-2018

But in other ways, this industry is the Wild West, with fierce competition leading to an unpredictable roller-coaster ride for most quick-serve and fast-casual brands. One year, you could be riding high on a successful new menu item or marketing strategy; the next, a boneheaded executive comment or disastrous value deal could bring your sales momentum to a sputtering stop.

Thankfully, we’re here to document it all—the rises, the falls, and the truly unpredictable. Read on to find out which 50 limited-service companies did enough to land a spot among the industry’s elite.

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The Steve Easterbrook Era is transforming McDonald’s in all the right ways. The CEO, who took the company reins in March 2015, quickly initiated a Turnaround Plan that stripped the company of unnecessary management layers, refranchised hundreds of corporate stores, and pushed the brand toward more modern innovations. Last year, Easterbrook & Co. introduced the next chapter in the company’s comeback story, the Velocity Growth Plan, which has it focused on expanding its Experience of the Future kiosk prototype, providing delivery through UberEats, and offering more convenience with mobile order and pay. These strategies are paying off and then some; in 2017, McDonald’s enjoyed its best sales growth in six years.



Starbucks continues to be the nation’s premier coffee provider, and its nonstop innovation pipeline keeps rolling out beverages you might expect more at an artisan coffeehouse than a 14,000-unit powerhouse. But it’s not been all smooth sailing for the Seattle company. For one, the brand acknowledged last year that guest traffic was slowing and mobile-order lines were creating problematic bottlenecks in stores. And then earlier this year, a much-publicized incident in a Philadelphia store, in which a white general manager called the police on two African-American customers, led to swift company backlash. In response, Starbucks closed all locations on the afternoon of May 29 for racial bias training. Also, the company is now without the leadership of long-time leader Howard Schultz; the former CEO who built the company into what it is today left Starbucks in June, with speculation swirling about a potential run for political office.



It’s been an up-and-down couple of years since Subway founder Fred DeLuca died of leukemia in 2015. His sister Suzanne Greco took the company helm shortly after his passing, and last year Subway introduced the Fresh Forward campaign, a bold new store prototype that gave the brand a more modern look and experience. This year included Subway’s new loyalty program, MyWay Rewards, which offers cash off future purchases after certain spending levels are accrued. But Greco abruptly announced her retirement in May, replaced in the interim by chief business development officer Trevor Haynes as the company searches for a new leader.


Burger King

Burger King has never been one to lie low in the burger wars. The chain has ramped up its attacks on national competitors, which in the last year has included the introduction of spicy chicken nuggets (shortly after Wendy’s scaled back its own similar product) and the launch of the Double Quarter Pound King burger, a shot across the bow of McDonald’s. Meanwhile, new products like the Bacon King burger and the Crispy Chicken Sandwich performed very well in 2017, and Burger King stepped up its innovation efforts this year with menu items like the Crispy Pretzel Chicken Fries and Sourdough King sandwich. This year, the company is focused on ramping up its digital-ordering presence while also expanding delivery.


Taco Bell

While it lost CEO Brian Niccol to fast-casual rival Chipotle, Taco Bell has to be happy about the shape its former leader left it in. The brand has been cruising the last few years with a strategy that positions it as a go-to destination for milliennial and Gen Z consumers. Whether through new menu items like Nacho Fries or the Naked Chicken Chalupa, initiatives like the “Taco Mode” partnership with Lyft that allowed passengers to add a drive-thru trip to Taco Bell, or expansion of the Cantina prototype that offers more of a night-life experience, Taco Bell has established itself as a trendy quick-serve leader that is as much a lifestyle destination as it is source of cheap Mexican food. The company is focusing this year on expanded value-menu offerings, as well as the rollout of a kiosk ordering platform and third-party delivery.



In response to McDonald’s $1 $2 $3 Dollar Menu, Wendy’s expanded its own 4 for $4 value menu in January, bumping up the menu to eight entrées. But that’s not the only front in the battle between the two burger leaders; after McDonald’s announced it would switch to fresh beef in its Quarter Pounders, Wendy’s used its marketing firepower (and infamous Twitter handle) to remind customers that it had served fresh beef since day one. While Wendy’s will never win the war with the Golden Arches (at least as far as system-wide sales goes), there’s at least one thing the brand can hang its hat on: menu innovation. The Ohio-based chain boasts a more robust lineup than its direct burger competitors, recently featuring items as varied as a Smoky Mushroom Bacon Burger and a Southwest Avocado Chicken Sandwich.


Dunkin’ Donuts

The Boston-based breakfast and snack chain is in the midst of some serious brand evolution. Not only did the company cut back its bloated menu, but it also introduced a new store prototype that signals a more innovative, high-tech Dunkin’ for the future. Flip to Page 66 to learn more about the Dunkin’ Donuts transformation.



Another year, another monster performance from Chick-fil-A. The chicken chain is making the quick-service industry look easy, with an average unit volume that absolutely destroys those of competitors. How does it do it? There’s its stellar customer service, yes. And of course, the product is good. But let’s not forget that Chick-fil-A also keeps ahead of the curve with its menu innovations. In the last year, that’s included Spicy Chick-n-Strips, a Hash Brown Scramble breakfast bowl, a Grilled Spicy Deluxe Chicken Sandwich, and beverages like Peach Tea Lemonade. Chick-fil-A’s latest menu test takes the brand in an interesting new direction: Chick-n-Sliders, made with the signature chicken filet on a warm roll and topped with honey butter spread, could present a viable snack option for Chick-fil-A.



Let’s stop for a moment and consider what an amazing feat Domino’s has accomplished in the last nine years. Back in 2009, Domino’s was a distant No. 2 in the pizza category, doing $3 billion in sales to Pizza Hut’s $5 billion. Its pizza, as Domino’s own executives admitted, sucked. Brand momentum was nowhere to be found. But then the company, led by CEO J. Patrick Doyle and CMO Russell Weiner, launched its now-infamous attack on its own recipe, reformulating its core product and promising customers a better experience. The ploy worked and then some; less than a decade later, Domino’s has overcome Pizza Hut as the largest pizza brand in the U.S. Perhaps content with this last great achievement, Doyle stepped down from the CEO position in June.


Pizza Hut

Second fiddle is an unfamiliar position for Pizza Hut. But for the first time in the QSR 50’s history, that’s where it finds itself in the pizza category, looking up at Domino’s. The good news for Pizza Hut is that the slump that got it here—including five consecutive quarters of declining sales leading up to 2017’s third quarter—could be over. Sales are slowly starting to come around, and the brand is attracting customers again with a reenergized digital ordering platform, new value deals—like its $5.99 medium two-topping pizza deal—and even a beer-delivery program that is slowly rolling out.


Panera Bread

The leading fast casual continues to spearhead the rise of clean, convenient, quality food, and has made moves that make Panera’s menu more accessible than ever. An in-house delivery program is now available nationwide, and Panera also launched voice-activated ordering for delivery or Rapid Pick-Up through the Google Assistant on consumers’ mobile devices. Panera’s also offering consultation services to other restaurants that want to follow in its footsteps in offering clean-label menus. Alas, longtime leader Ron Shaich is no longer leading the charge; the CEO ceded the position to Blaine Hurst at the beginning of 2018, stepping down to focus on personal initiatives while remaining on Panera’s board.



Chipotle appears to have finally turned the corner nearly three years after an E. coli and norovirus outbreak in some restaurants brought it to its knees. Same-store sales are back in the black, but most importantly, exciting change is afoot. The company hired Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol for the same position in February, and the chief exec has set about refreshing Chipotle’s management team—like with new CMO (and fellow Taco Bell veteran) Chris Brandt—and preparing the brand for the future. That includes a bigger commitment to delivery through DoorDash, new investments in a drive-thru window committed to digital orders, and an impending headquarters change to Newport Beach, California—not far from Taco Bell’s Irvine headquarters.



KFC continued to introduce new Colonel Sanders into the marketing mix, including the first woman (country singer Reba McEntire) and unknown actor Christopher Boyer, who played the brand’s “Value Colonel.” But KFC isn’t entirely stuck in the past; in step with parent company Yum! Brands, it expanded online ordering and delivery through an exclusive partnership with GrubHub, and it even announced that it would test a plant-based fried chicken product in the U.K.


Sonic Drive-In

Sonic has staked its claim as a leader in convenience for years; after all, its drive-in model allows guests to enjoy a restaurant experience without even getting out of their cars. But its new initiative may help the brand take one giant leap forward in the convenience game. Sonic’s new mobile-ordering platform goes deeper than most brands’, letting customers use the app to customize their meal, pay, and then select which location and time to pick up their food. From there, they simply check in at the stall where they pull in and an employee runs out the food. In tests, service times to customers were averaging just less than two minutes, which CEO Cliff Hudson says is “a speed that, from our standpoint, is going to redefine convenience for our guests and put us in consideration for a completely different occasion with consumers.”


Dairy Queen

Long-time CEO John Gainor retired from Dairy Queen at the close of 2017, and COO Troy Bader assumed the position. The brand continues to innovate with both its eats (Honey Hot Glazed Chicken Strip Basket LTO and the A.1. Bacon Cheese Cheeseburger $5 Buck Lunch value meal) and its sweets (Dipped Strawberry Blizzard Treat Made With Ghirardelli). This year, Dairy Queen also introduced its first-ever Summer Blizzard Treat Menu, which is packed with several Blizzard flavors invoking the nostalgia of summer, like the S’mores and Cotton Candy varieties.



In case you’ve forgotten, Arby’s has the meats—and then some! Recent LTOs have included the Chicken Pepperoni Parm, the Venison Sandwich, the Miami Cuban, the Texas Brisket, and the New York Reuben. But its menu isn’t the only meaty thing about Arby’s; sales continue to climb, as the brand inched closer to its goal of doing $4 billion in sales this year. Things have been going so well at Arby’s, in fact, that its growth now includes the acquisitions of other foodservice brands. Arby’s purchased Buffalo Wild Wings last year for nearly $3 billion, forming the new restaurant group Inspire Brands, and CEO Paul Brown hinted that more acquisitions under the Inspire banner might be on their way.


Little Caesars

Little Caesars has some pizza innovation to brag about, including the ExtraMostBestest Stuffed Crust Pizza with “over 3 feet of cheese.” But the Detroit-based pizza slinger also has some interesting new ordering options available for customers. There’s its enhanced app with mobile order and pay functionality and a custom pizza builder tool, and then there’s the Reserve-N-Ready service that boasts the industry’s first heated, self-service mobile-order pick-up station. Customers simply have to order and pay with their app, then walk into the store and grab their pizza from an automated “Pizza Portal.”


Jack in the Box

A funky and irreverent vibe is Jack in the Box’s calling card, whether that’s through testing delivery robots with DoorDash or celebrating legalized marijuana in California by promoting its Munchie Meals. But Jack in the Box is also sticking to a tried-and-true quick-service model this year as it builds out its value offerings, rolling out several value-minded bundles between $1 and $5. CEO Lenny Comma also said the company would direct more attention to menu innovation in the value price range. Jack in the Box also streamlined its business earlier in the year when it sold Qdoba to Apollo Global Management for $305 million.


Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

Now under the Restaurant Brands International banner along with Burger King and Tim Hortons, Popeyes is quickly expanding, having added nearly 150 locations in the course of 2017. As it plants its roots in more communities across the U.S., Popeyes is also boosting its convenience quotient, having partnered with UberEats on delivery service in several hundred restaurants so far. The service has proved particularly fruitful for Popeyes’ dinner and late-night business, according to an RBI report.


Papa John’s

In the increasingly competitive pizza wars, Papa John’s is clearly coming out a loser. The brand slogged through a disappointing 2017 and early 2018, which included the bad publicity attached to founder John Schnatter’s comments on NFL players kneeling for the national anthem, the subsequent departure of Papa John’s as the official pizza of the NFL, and Peyton Manning’s exit from the business as franchisee and spokesman. Schnatter stepped down as CEO, but things went from bad to worse. In July, it was revealed that he had made a racial slur during a conference call in the spring, and the subsequent fall-out—including many partners abandoning the brand—forced him to resign as chairman. Where does the brand go from here? That remains to be seen, but based on the fact it has pulled Schnatter’s likeness from its branding, the answer seems to be: as far from him as possible.


Panda Express

The nation’s largest Asian concept isn’t letting the fact that it basically owns the market serve was an excuse to rest on its laurels. The company has introduced new menu items to the mix, including Wok-Seared Steak and Shrimp and the limited-time 8 Treasure Chicken Breast. But it’s also invested in premium spin-off concepts, like Panda + Tea, which boasts a signature tea bar of pearl milk teas, fruit teas, lemonades, smoothies, and sparkling yogurt drinks, along with customizable wraps and salads and some Panda classics.



Whataburger continues to be the beloved quick-serve chain that crushes sales and yet remains unfamiliar to so many Americans. But the Texas-based company demonstrated why it’s become such a revered regional institution last summer, when it became a major force in Hurricane Harvey relief. It pledged $1 million through the Whataburger Family Foundation, which aided employees affected by the hurricane, and also donated $150,000 to the Red Cross and another $500,000 to local food banks.



Breaking up is hard to do—unless you’re CKE’s sister brands, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. The two have been in the midst of an amicable split since February, when CKE and its CEO, Jason Marker—who’s been on the job for just over a year and has sought transformational change in that time—announced that they would seek separate menu and marketing paths for the burger brands. For Hardee’s, that path led to its “Tastes Like America” marketing campaign, which stresses the shared values Hardee’s has with customers nationwide, and the “comfort culture” that the brand creates.


Jimmy John’s

Already one of the most successful sandwich chains when Roark Capital purchased a majority stake in fall of 2016, Jimmy John’s now has the backing of one of the industry’s most significant investors. Perhaps that’s why the brand recently made the extremely rare decision to update its menu and roll out a fresh marketing campaign. In the summer, Jimmy John’s announced its “Freak Yeah” ad series, which highlights the “Freaky Fast” nature of its restaurant operations. It also made three menu changes: Guests can now order 16-inch Giant sandwich size, add sliced pickles to any sandwich, and select a brand-new Kickin’ Ranch sauce that’s made in each store with fresh buttermilk and pureed hot cherry peppers.



The chicken fast casual keeps cruising along in its expansion, now with nearly 900 locations and more than $2 billion in system-wide sales. Zaxby’s rolled out a series of “fan-first” initiatives in 2017 designed to honor its loyal guests, including the limited-time deal of 5 Meals for $5.99 Each, a Poolside Punch summertime beverage, and its continued investment in college game-day tailgate experiences, which featured a food truck and interactive activities at six rivalry games across the South.


Carl’s Jr.

Now free from its East Coast sibling Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr. is keeping up with the sort of irreverent attitude that CKE had staked its claim on previously with both brands (minus the barely dressed models). First up is a “Call of Carl’s” campaign that features the voice of actor Matthew McConaughey promoting a “crave culture” around the chain’s iconic Western Bacon Cheeseburger.


Five Guys

Not much to report from the Five Guys front. The better-burger brand’s growth may not be as explosive as, say, five or six years ago, but it continues to open stores and pad its system-wide sales while also growing its average unit volume.



The Midwest butter-burger favorite continues to slowly expand its reach into new corners of the country, while also highlighting its fresh, cooked-to-order promise in TV campaigns. Meanwhile, limited-time offers like the Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich and the Pretzel Haus Pub Burger keep the menu fresh.



A year ago, Bojangles’ was flying high with a new store prototype and plans to expand farther north. But the North Carolina–based chicken-and-biscuit chain flew into a wall in the last year, with same-store sales sputtering and CEO Clifton Rutledge abruptly leaving the company in March. Board member and former CEO Randy Kibler is back in the position on an interim basis as Bojangles’ seeks to reclaim momentum, whether through its third-party delivery rollout, its new BoRewards loyalty and payment app, or the various value deals it’s tried on the menu.



Wingstop becomes the latest brand to join the billion-dollar club. The chicken-wing chain’s swift sales growth can be partially explained by the company’s split-menu pricing strategy, which it rolled out in 2017 in light of commodity-price concerns. Wingstop reduced the price of its boneless wings but increased some bone-in prices, which led to bigger-than-usual ticket increases. President and CEO Charlie Morrison has said there are four key areas in which Wingstop is focusing in its near future: national advertising, digital enhancements, delivery roll out, and international development. Technology in particular has proved particularly friendly to Wingstop; ordering options through Facebook and Twitter messaging, SMS, Amazon Alexa, and GM’s OnStar marketplace has given the company a unique position in the market.


Jersey Mike’s

There’s no stopping Jersey Mike’s, as the sandwich fast casual keeps cruising up the QSR 50 and now sits on the cusp of becoming a billion-dollar brand. American consumers and franchisees alike are hungry for Jersey Mike’s, helping fuel massive unit expansion; by 2020, the 1,300-unit chain expects to have 2,000 restaurants nationwide, including in nontraditional venues like airports, military bases, universities, and sporting venues. And it’s not just the sandwiches that are making an impact. Jersey Mike’s continues to expand its “Month of Giving” charitable initiative, and this March raised more than $6 million for charities nationwide.


Steak ‘n Shake

Steak ‘n Shake crossed the billion-dollar-sales threshold in 2016, but retracted in 2017, with its net unit count decreasing by more than 50 and its sales dropping to about $940 million for the year. The brand has struggled to get a foothold on the West Coast; of 10 locations that opened in California since it first entered that state in 2014, four have already closed.



The double-drive-thru brands were sold to Oak Hill Capital Partners in March 2017, and the company is leaning into its new private equity owner for growth purposes, plotting new unit expansion as well as working toward improving average unit volume. Checkers/Rally’s is also rolling out a “Model 4.0” store redesign that allows franchisees to choose from three different plans: a traditional on-site build, a new modular building, and a new container building that uses reclaimed shipping containers. The modular building introduces one of the biggest brand evolutions of all: It comes with only one drive-thru window.


Pollo Loco

Former Starbucks executive Bernard Acoca took over as CEO earlier this year, and it wasn’t the only big change in store for El Pollo Loco in 2018. The same week Acoca took the reins, the company introduced a new logo that dropped the yellow-and-orange color scheme in favor of a bold, modern, red-and-black look that emphasizes its signature chicken. The new logo follows in El Pollo Loco’s ongoing transformation, which also included a new “Vision Design” prototype introduced at the end of 2016.


Papa Murphy’s

The numbers may not look great for Papa Murphy’s—its national unit count dropped by several dozen locations—but the take-and-bake pizza chain is positioning itself for new growth in the years ahead. Not only is it refranchising many locations in an effort to improve same-store sales, but Papa Murphy’s is also investing in the consumer experience by introducing a digital ordering platform through Olo, expanding third-party delivery, and exploring a loyalty program.



For the first time in 15 years, Qdoba is its own brand. Jack in the Box purchased the Mexican fast casual in 2003 when it had just 85 locations and helped grow it into a 750-unit juggernaut. But in March, Qdoba was sold to Apollo Global Management for $305 million in cash. Now the brand is prepping for its next chapter, fortifying its San Diego headquarters with 100 new employees and enlisting new CEO Keith Guilbault to steer it into the future.



Church’s Chicken

Church’s CEO Joe Christina has been on the job for nearly two years, and he’s already overseen some transformational change. That includes management changes; Hector Munoz joined as chief marketing officer from the same role at Popeyes, while former McDonald’s exec Pete Servold took Christina’s old post as EVP of U.S. But it also includes operational changes, as the company hopes to better support franchisees through reduced costs of remodel packages, improved communications, and more favorable supply and distribution contracts, among other things.



Del Taco

It’s sunny skies at Del Taco, which through 2018’s first quarter had enjoyed 18 consecutive quarters of sales growth. A big reason for that growth is Del Taco’s commitment to value, particularly its “Buck & Under” platform, which boasts up to 15 menu items sold at $1 or less. The brand is now enhancing that value message with the “Buck & Change” menu, which will help it promote items with a slightly higher price point. Del Taco is planning an “Elevated Combined Solutions” platform for the third quarter, which will include operational improvements, a new advertising campaign, and menu additions and refreshes.


Tim Hortons

Tim Hortons is typically quiet on the media stage, but all of that is about to change. Daniel Schwartz, CEO of parent company Restaurant Brands International, recently bemoaned the media narrative driving negative publicity of the Tim Hortons brand, adding that the company hopes to recapture that narrative with its upcoming “Winning Together” plan. That plan includes a store redesign that will feature a more natural, light, inviting look, and artwork depicting the brand’s history.


Moe’s Southwest Grill

The Mexican fast casual is embracing its “cool uncle” perception among consumers, doubling down on its funky persona in marketing campaigns, particularly social media. Look no further than its recent Chief Taco Officer search, in which it invited loyal members to apply for the coveted (and not entirely real) position via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter; the winner, New York City resident Kate Munoz, joined Moe’s for a 12-city tour across the U.S. this summer to promote the brand’s new Three Amigos Tacos and was handed the keys to the brand’s social media accounts in the process.


Firehouse Subs

Like many quick-serve and fast-casual brands, Firehouse Subs is experiencing a seismic shift in its business. An increasing amount of the sandwich chain’s sales is off-premises dining, including to-go and third-party delivery orders. That’s led Firehouse to rethink its packaging (introducing an enhanced to-go wrap), store layouts (exploring smaller dining rooms), and hiring strategies (including possible in-store delivery). The good news? Business is still booming, and there’s still plenty of market share to be captured in the sandwich category.


McAlister’s Deli

FOCUS Brands named Joe Guith McAlister’s new brand president in April after Paul Macaluso left for the CEO position at Krystal. Guith, who was previously brand president and COO of FOCUS sister chain Cinnabon, will oversee the deli chain’s steady growth and innovation, which will no doubt include new iterations of its beloved sweet tea.


In-N-Out Burger

Some quick-service brands plant a flag in their seventh state after maybe a year or two in business. For In-N-Out Burger, it took about 70 years. The revered California better-burger chain announced in December that it would enter Colorado in the near future, which includes plans for a patty production facility and distribution center in Colorado Springs. At this rate, In-N-Out might reach the East Coast by, say, the turn of the next century.


Jason’s Deli

Hackers have hit the foodservice world hard in the last few years, and Jason’s Deli is no exception. The fast casual announced in January that as many as 2 million customer credit cards had been compromised in a 2017 data breach, with a “large quantity of payment card information” being sold on the dark web.



If you thought food delivery was confined to lunch or dinner entrées alone, you thought wrong. Baskin-Robbins launched a delivery program with DoorDash last summer, providing doorstep service from more than 600 locations in 22 cities across the U.S.


Boston Market

CEO George Michel retired from Boston Market in the spring after more than seven years in the position. His successor? That’d be Frances Allen, former Jack in the Box president and, before that, Denny’s CMO. Allen will now carry the mantle of Boston Market’s “Quality Guarantee,” which it launched in 2017 as a commitment to guests that it will serve all-natural, never-frozen, gluten-free, whole chicken with no added hormones, steroids, antibiotics, or MSG.


Auntie Anne’s

Honoring its 30th year in business this year, Auntie Anne’s celebrated with a “For the Love of Pretzels” apparel line in April (pretzel-themed fanny pack, anyone?) in which the proceeds were donated to charity. The company launched a new catering program in 2017 and continues to innovate with limited-time offers like Sriracha Pretzels and Pumpkin Spice Pretzel Nuggets.


Marco’s Pizza

Marco’s makes its first appearance on the QSR 50 this year, leap-frogging three positions on the strength of 97 net new units and more than $60 million growth in system-wide sales. The company promoted COO Tony Libardi to the president position earlier this year—Marco’s 40th in business—to facilitate its booming growth.


White Castle

White Castle may be the home of slider-scented candles and tongue-in-cheek white-tablecloth Valentine’s dinners, but it’s not without its innovation. The brand recently expanded a delivery program through Grubhub, and even became the first quick serve to feature the plant-based Impossible Burger on its menu.


Noodles & Co.

While it very publicly shuttered 55 company-owned locations last year, don’t stick a fork in Noodles & Co. just yet. New CEO Dave Boennighausen is spearheading a brand refresh, which includes investments in online ordering, third-party delivery, and a national launch of zucchini noodles. Expect 2018 to be a year of slow—but positive—growth for the noodle fast casual.

Fast Food, Finance, Special Reports