The QSR 50

    Your annual update on the best brands in the biz.


    McDonald's once again claims the No. 1 spot on the QSR 50.



    Once again the Golden Arches reigns supreme, having added nearly $2 billion to its final domestic sales tally over the previous year (and nearly tripling the sales of its closest competitor). A range of menu LTOs, like the Chipotle BBQ Angus Burger and the Peppermint Mocha and Hot Chocolate beverages, attracted customers, but its good press in the kids' space didn't hurt. In July, McDonald's announced that it would include a portion of apples in every Happy Meal and decrease the size of kids' fries from 2.4 ounces to 1.1 ounces. The new McDonald's Channel in hundreds of units, a new ad campaign focused on transparency, and a Hiring Day that brought on 62,000 new team members further proved in 2011 that McDonald's is the restaurant industry's standard-bearer.

    In 2012, the innovation ante has been upped even more. Chicken McBites and the Extra Value Menu provide additional meal occasions for customers, while McDonald's all-in approach to the London Olympics—including the kid-centered "Champions of Play" initiative—put it in the global spotlight for months. That's good news for Don Thompson, the youthful former president of McDonald's who succeeded Jim Skinner as CEO in June.



    Subway continued to blow away the competition in net new units, gaining a whopping 872 stores in 2011 and building on its position as the largest fast-food brand by units in the world. The year saw Subway homing in on two big buzzwords quick-serve customers are increasingly hoping to hear: healthy and green. The company further developed its nutritional initiatives, with calcium- and vitamin D–fortified bread, mass sodium reductions, and healthy-eating tips on its website. It also debuted five eco-conscious restaurants, with green elements like solar panels and low-flow faucets and toilets. Subway doubled down on its focus on sustainability in 2012 while also growing the presence of its Subway Café coffeehouse-style prototype.

    There's still no word, however, on whether the company will repeat the popular $2 6-inch-sub deal, which wowed customers in December.



    McDonald's treading on Starbucks' position as the beverage category leader might have spurred the java giant into doing some menu diversification of its own. The company reaffirmed its commitment to the lunch daypart with its Bistro Boxes (which offer everything from Chicken and Hummus to Salumi and Cheese), while also diving deeper into the evening daypart with the Petites line of desserts and the expanded test of units that served beer, wine, and small plates of food. This year's purchase of La Boulange Bakery further proved Starbucks' commitment to food.

    Starbucks didn't forget its beverage roots, though; the last year found it hunkering down on its VIA instant blends and single-cup offers (like the K-cup), rolling out the lighter Blonde roast, and purchasing the Evolution Fresh brand, which positions it as the leader in the growing juice category.



    After shedding the weight of sister brand Arby's, which sold to Roark Capital Group for a cool $430 million, and consolidating its headquarters in its hometown of Dublin, Ohio, Wendy's set out to reclaim its position in the upper echelon of burger brands.

    New CEO Emil Brolick declared that the company would compete with fast-casual concepts like Five Guys, and that the path there would include a staff reboot (holding on to only "five-star employees"); low-cost, premium burgers (like the W and the Dave's Hot N Juicy); and a company facelift (remodeling old and building new stores that include free WiFi, bright colors, and more comfortable seating).

    Meanwhile, a host of new side options and a refocused advertising campaign in 2012 continued to push Wendy's as the authentic, traditional brand Dave Thomas always intended it to be.


    Burger King

    As if Burger King's major menu development in 2010 wasn't enough, new owners 3G Capital and a fresh team of executives decided to push the envelope even further in 2011. The concept introduced several new burger options, including the Toppers, Stackers, and Chef's Choice lines, as well as new dessert items (soft-serve ice cream, sundaes, and milkshakes) and a new breakfast dish (oatmeal). The company also hired a different advertising agency, which ditched the creepy King. Burger King even refreshed its fries recipe, toyed with its Whopper (debuting the California Whopper), and became the biggest quick serve on the inaugural list of the National Restaurant Association's Kids LiveWell program.

    But losing its position as the No. 2 burger brand must have stung more than anyone could imagine; in 2012, Burger King overhauled its menu again, introducing 10 new items that included wraps, smoothies, and salads. Even the star-studded commercials debuting the new menu couldn't hide its similarities to McDonald's last decade of innovation.


    Taco Bell

    Though Taco Bell's 2011 started off on shaky ground with a frivolous lawsuit claiming its beef contained only 36 percent actual beef, the brand came clawing back. After the lawsuit was dropped, Taco Bell went so far as publicly demanding an apology from the attorneys who filed the lawsuit and thanking fans for the support by giving away millions of free tacos on Facebook. The lawsuit hiccup also didn't deter Taco Bell from making big menu moves, like testing the Firstmeal breakfast menu and introducing the wildly popular Doritos Locos Tacos. The new menu direction helped reaffirm Taco Bell's new marketing tagline: "Live Más."


    Dunkin' Donuts

    Dunkin' Donuts may have made its name with coffee and doughnuts, but the brand is banking on an expanded food menu to help it achieve its goal of doubling its U.S. unit count in the next 20 years. The new food items that debuted in 2011 (Big 'N Toasty Breakfast Sandwich, Hearty Snacks, Blueberry Waffle Breakfast Sandwich, Smokehouse Sausage Breakfast Sandwich, and Texas Toast Grilled Cheese Sandwich) and several that debuted early in 2012 (Bakery Sandwiches, Artisan Bagels, Angus Steak & Egg Sandwich, and the return of Sausage Pancake Bites) helped bolster its breakfast appeal. That should pay off handsomely as Dunkin' continues its slow expansion push westward.


    Pizza Hut

    Aside from its ambitious international growth and bold $20 Big Dinner Box (which includes two medium pizzas, eight wings, and five breadsticks), 2011 was business as usual at Pizza Hut. The company did add some star appeal, with a marketing spot featuring NFL running back Reggie Bush and a Book It! reading program supported by The Biebs himself, Justin Bieber. It also debuted new mobile ordering apps and invested in a strong focus on social media and online marketing.



    Much like its Yum! Brands sister concept Pizza Hut, KFC has been busy gobbling up international markets, especially in China, where it now has more than 3,700 units. That direction may explain its stumble domestically, which included a $200 million drop in sales and net loss of 275 stores over the previous year. But the company is trusting new "chief chicken officer" Aaron Person to help carry the innovation torch, and it's also turning its eye to sustainable operations; a new store in Indianapolis even earned a LEED Gold certification.



    The newest member of the top 10 domestic quick-serve brands, Chick-fil-A leap-frogged Sonic by adding nearly $500 million to its domestic sales over 2010. New menu items like the Banana Pudding Milkshake, Multigrain Oatmeal, and Chicken Tortilla Soup likely helped in 2011, and this year's debut of a new kids' meal, which offers Grilled Chicken Nuggets and applesauce and restricts kids' beverages, should succeed as well. Meanwhile, the corporate team is focused on being good stewards of the earth, investing in sustainable operations at several new stores.


    Sonic Drive-In

    If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That mantra should have described Sonic's 2011, during which the brand's newly refreshed marketing campaigns struggled to find footing with customers. CEO J. Clifford Hudson said earlier this year that the campaigns also weren't flexible enough to market all of the chain's offerings, which last year grew to include new beef hot dogs, sweet potato tots, and sundae shakes, among other new menu items. So Sonic brought in a new creative agency and a new CMO, James O'Reilly, who quickly turned to two familiar dudes for some marketing help: the Two Guys, to be exact, who helped advertise Sonic from 2002 to 2010.


    Domino's Pizza

    Having successfully transitioned into its new pizza recipe (and companion marketing campaigns) that brought the company back from the dead, Domino's spent 2011 zeroing in on additional menu innovation. New items included Parmesan Bread Bites, Stuffed Cheesy Bread, a premium chicken product, and the Artisan Pizza line. The company also introduced its Smart Slice program, which took healthier pizza offerings into K–12 schools.

    Finally jumping head first into the mobile age didn't hurt, either; one week after it debuted, Domino's new mobile ordering app had earned $1 million in sales.


    Panera Bread

    The fast-casual leader maintained its steady growth in 2011, padding its sales with an additional $300 million domestically over 2010. A number of new calorie-conscious items, like the Thai Chopped Chicken Salad and the Low-Fat Wild Berry Smoothie, were a new draw for customers last year, as was a new panini menu. Panera is now tackling several aspects of the customer experience; the company is testing table delivery, rolling out its first national cable TV advertising campaign, and committing to more units with a drive thru. The brand's exposure also earned a major boost earlier this year when the company opened its first Manhattan unit.



    Despite getting dumped by Wendy's in a $430 million sale to Roark Capital Group, Arby's was finally, after years of falling sales, in a "Good Mood" last year. The concept rolled out Market Fresh Reuben, Ultimate Angus Philly, and Ultimate Angus Three Cheese & Bacon sandwiches, and also updated its kids' meal to include two healthier entrée options (a Jr. Turkey and Cheese Sandwich and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese) and apple slices as a side. The "Good Mood Food" integrated marketing campaign, meanwhile, helped Arby's carve out a fresh brand personality.

    The sum of its parts? Arby's domestic sales were up over 2010, albeit barely.


    Jack in the Box

    Croissants, combo deals, and new sandwiches and desserts all found their way to Jack in the Box's menu in 2011. The company also added four new items to its value menu and, like several other chains, boosted the nutrition of its kids' meals by adding apple slices and caramel as a side option. If all of that wasn't enough to get customers' attention, Jack in the Box's 34-foot-long food truck, Jack's Munchie Mobile, should have done the trick when it hit the streets of Southern California.


    Dairy Queen

    International growth was and remains a major focus for Dairy Queen, which expanded its presence in China in 2011 and opened in Saudi Arabia for the first time (a move highlighted by the biggest DQ Grill & Chill store in the world). While the brand continues to roll out new permanent and LTO blizzard flavors in the U.S., it's also investing in its lunch menu. The Lunch Lovers digital campaign that launched earlier this year rewarded Facebook fans who professed their love of DQ's lunch menu with free gift cards.



    Chipotle took its "Food With Integrity" identity to the next level last year, using its clout to turn customers' attention to the plight of local farmers. Two short videos went viral online advertising the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, which helps fund initiatives that support sustainable agriculture and family farming. One of those videos, featuring a sublime Willie Nelson rendition of Coldplay's "The Scientist," even became Chipotle's first nationally aired commercial when it debuted during this year's Grammy Awards.

    Chipotle's 2011 opening of the ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen in Washington, D.C., created additional good buzz for the brand. Turns out the company needed all the good buzz it could get; the company's struggles with ICE compliance and founder Steve Ells' participation in the abysmal "America's Next Great Restaurant" TV show gave Chipotle some rare negative press.


    Papa John's

    "Papa" John Schnatter is all by his lonesome now in the CEO position after former co-CEO Jude Thompson left to pursue other interests. So far, the results of the Papa John's formula have been the same: By doing the occasional LTO (like its Buffalo Chicken Pizza), going all in on sports sponsorships (which it's done as the Official Pizza of the NFL), and riding that sponsorship in its marketing (as it did with this year's "Super Bowl XVLI Coin Toss Experience"), Papa John's maintains its spot as a top-three pizza company in the U.S.



    Hardee's, along with CKE sister concept Carl's Jr., may have been the first major quick serve to offer turkey burgers, which it did early in 2011. But make no mistake; this brand is still shooting for the young, hungry male demographic, which it lured with its Steakhouse Burgers, the Country Fried Steak and Gravy platter, and the new Southwest Patty Melt, the latter of which was promoted (seductively) by America's newest model superstar, Kate Upton. For those opposed to CKE's hot-women-and-juicy-burgers strategy, the company released a bold new tagline: "Just the way it is." No word yet on what the company's new shareholders (CKE filed for its IPO in May) think of the strategy.


    Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

    A return to the company's popular Pay Day, Wicked Chicken, and Crawfish LTOs, along with the addition of the Rip'N Chick'N and Dip'N Chick'N offers, helped drive Popeyes' growth in 2011, as it grew by a net 58 stores and nearly $100 million over 2010. The company also jumped aboard the healthy-eats trend with its Louisiana Leaux menu of better-for-you alternatives, which included the return of its Naked Chicken Tenders, as well as the side additions of green beans and apple sauce.


    Panda Express

    The Asian category leader, Panda Express centered its development on menu innovations, which in 2011 included LTOs like Firecracker Chicken Breast and Garlic Lover's Chicken Breast, as well as permanent items like the Golden Treasure Shrimp. The Paw Plate that went into test in 2012 aims to give customers more menu variety at smaller portions, offering three 4-ounce entrees for $6.25.


    Carl's Jr.

    While Carl's Jr. largely stuck to the same script in 2011 as Hardee's—launching the Charbroiled Turkey Burgers, Steakhouse Burgers, and Hand-Breaded Chicken Fillet sandwich, and upping its commitment to the young male demographic with its Kate Upton spots—Carl's Jr. also was busy with its own menu innovation. The Hand-Scooped Oreo Ice Cream Sandwich, Chicken Tender Wrappers, and previously Hardee's-exclusive Made From Scratch Biscuits all showed up on Carl's Jr.'s menu in 2011, helping it inch one spot closer to its sister concept on the QSR 50.


    Little Caesars

    Little Caesars added more than 300 net units and $200 million in sales between 2010 and 2011. What exactly did it do to earn those numbers? Well, not a whole lot. By maintaining its commitment to its $5 Hot-N-Ready pizza and seeking out valuable sports partnerships (including attaching its name to a college football bowl game), Little Caesars is climbing up the quick-service ranks. The 2012 TV spot "Nobody Does It Like We Do" signaled a major commitment from the company to its national marketing efforts.



    History paints Whataburger as a hometown, traditional, authentic burger brand. Last year's documentary-style marketing campaign from the company, its first in nine years, certainly showed as much; real employees and real customers were the stars of the campaign. But Whataburger, with new CEO Preston Atkinson in tow, also ramped up its innovation in 2011, offering new menu items like the Banana Pie and Shake, the Pineapple Pie and Shake, the Honey Mustard Chicken Club sandwich, the Fish Taco and Spicy Tartar Sauce, and the Green Chile Burger. The company also debuted its All-Time Faves menu, which showcased several past LTO-only items, and made a commitment to healthier kids' meals, offering apple slices and a whole-grain bun.


    Five Guys Burgers & Fries

    Can you believe that two years ago, Five Guys sat at No. 42 on this list? So it goes for the better-burger leader, which added more than $200 million in domestic sales and 182 net stores over 2010 by doing, well, mostly more of the same while saturating market after market. The real question to ask: Just what's the ceiling on this thing?



    One year after seeing its net unit count decrease by 600 and sales drop by $300 million (earning it a three-spot decline), Quiznos dropped another 334 stores and—you're reading this right—$500 million between 2010 and 2011, falling another five spots down the QSR 50.

    But don't feel bad for Quiznos. The sandwich concept is actively turning things around, having restructured its debt (to save it from bankruptcy), hired a new CEO (Greg MacDonald), and rolled out a whopping 25 new menu items (including salads, wraps, and sliders). There's also a new franchisee association and no more Sammies, Bullets, or Torpedoes. All of it helped Quiznos to proclaim in its advertising earlier this year that it's "Better Than Ever."


    Jimmy John's

    While one sandwich concept, Quiznos, plummets down this list, another, Jimmy John's, is actively climbing. The company fought through unionization efforts from its employees and, this year, an E. coli scare to add another 200 net stores and more than $150 million in domestic sales. It was enough to give the concept the top spot in a recent poll of Millennials' favorite quick serves rated for food quality.


    Church's Chicken

    Bolstered by fresh executives in its C-suite, including new CEO Jim Hyatt, Church's Chicken tried out some new technological efforts, like an online game and a social customer relationship management campaign. It also made waves by closing all of its Nashville-area stores for 18 hours to put employees through a customer service boot camp.



    Quick: What do Ryan Stiles, Doris Roberts, Giuliana Rancic, and Rachel Dratch all have in common? Sure, they're all (minor) celebrities, but they're also all stars of their very own Zaxby's commercials. The chicken fast-casual concept used the celebs to sell its continued run of LTOs, like the Italian sandwich and the Birthday Cake Milkshake. The big news, however, is Zaxby's new store prototype, an overhaul that shapes the exterior like a farmhouse and offers a more spacious interior.


    Steak 'n Shake

    Ringleader Sardar Biglari, who took over Steak 'n Shake in 2008, may have rubbed many the wrong way when he joined the company and went about overhauling it to his liking. But the proof is in the pudding, and even though Steak 'n Shake drops three spots on the QSR 50, the brand is on solid ground. Not only did it further develop its new prototype, continue its expansion westward, and open a new, buzzed-about unit in New York City, but Steak 'n Shake also made a major commitment to franchising. By the end of 2011 it had agreements for 110 franchised units.



    New unit openings helped the Southern stalwart cross the 500-unit line, and charitable giving efforts and LTO offerings (like the Fried Bologna and Made from Scratch Biscuits) helped affirm its Southern charm. But Bojangles' path took a decidedly un-Southern turn when it was acquired by Boston-based private equity firm Advent International last summer. The firm has promised to maintain Bojangles' identity and still focus growth primarily on the Southeast.



    Even this Midwest burger staple doubled down on its better-nutrition and sustainability efforts. The company launched its Mindful Choices program at the beginning of 2011, highlighting more nutritious menu options. It then debuted its first LEED-certified store, complete with natural lighting and recycled building materials. Culver's also rolled out several new limited-time offers, as well as its "Welcome to Delicious" campaign, which spotlighted its small-town charm and authentic qualities. The best news for Culver's fans? Its first East Coast unit opened this summer.


    Papa Murphy's

    Determined not to be a pizza also-ran, Papa Murphy's infused millions of dollars into its "Join the Take 'N' Bake Revolution" marketing campaign in 2011. With new CEO Ken Calwell at the helm, the take-and-bake leader (and Zagat-rated No. 1 pizza chain) continued its steady growth, adding 42 net stores and nearly $50 million in domestic sales.



    Even though CEO Rick Silva appeared on CBS' "Undercover Boss" and shut down one of his franchisees' stores for poor performance, expansion and store openings really are what the executive team is focused on at the double-drive-thru company. Checkers/Rally's opened more nontraditional units in urban markets and also developed a new, cheaper prototype, which ditches the second drive thru in favor of more seating and a walk-up window.


    Long John Silver's

    Sales and net unit counts were down at Long John Silver's, which Yum! Brands unloaded in 2011 after deciding it didn't fit in the company's long-term plans. The brand was acquired by LJS Partners LLC, a group comprised of franchisees and other investors. The new owners have plenty of work ahead of them if they want to turn around the quick-serve seafood leader.


    White Castle

    Sure, we should have expected Five Guys to represent the booming better-burger segment and enjoy the biggest jump up the QSR 50. But who would have guessed that the second-highest climber would be burger veteran White Castle? The slider sommeliers rose four spots by adding nearly $100 million to their domestic sales, despite a net loss of five stores. How'd the company do it? Mostly through unique promotions (burger-scented candles, anyone?), a dedication to its crazed fan base (the Cravers), and old-fashioned community work, evidenced by its passion for supporting autism research.


    Del Taco

    Its slow growth eastward (including plans for the Atlanta and Charleston, South Carolina, areas), along with new items like the Big Fat Crispy Chicken Tacos and Crispy Chicken Burritos, helped Del Taco keep pace as the No. 2 Mexican quick serve. A refreshed logo and prototype, highlighted by brighter colors and a salsa bar, have Del Taco prepped to chip away at Taco Bell's sizeable lead.


    El Pollo Loco

    A Fish Taco LTO fit perfectly with El Pollo Loco's West Coast, Mexican vibe, as did Chicken Carnitas and Chicken Tamales. The flame-grilled chicken chain gained additional exposure with its "El Pollo Loco ¡Feel the Mexcellence!" campaign and role as one of the inaugural members of the NRA's Kids LiveWell program.


    Jason's Deli

    Instead of putting all of its chips in mass expansion and menu development, Jason's Deli focused on what it does best: serving better-for-you food in a fast-casual setting with top-notch customer service. That formula helped it climb another three spots on the QSR 50 and earn an additional $30 million in domestic sales over 2010.


    Boston Market

    New CEO George Michel, who took the helm of Boston Market late in 2010, finally found room to breath in 2011. After inheriting a brand deep into a system-wide overhaul—including new menu items, upgraded customer service, and the addition of real plates, stainless ware, upgraded serving stations, and carving stations—Michel pulled his foot off the pedal a bit, focusing on marketing efforts like the company's partnership with Blockbuster.


    Krispy Kreme

    If you didn't think a doughnut company could absolutely kill it in AUV, think again. Humble little Krispy Kreme, the Winston-Salem, North Carolina–based doughnut purveyor celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2012, squeezed roughly $531 million out of its 234 units, good for an average unit volume nearing $2.3 million. The company got there largely on the back of its several LTOs, including the Banana Kreme Pie and Red Velvet Cake doughnuts, as well as with its brand-new Signature Coffee Blends.



    Qdoba jumped in on the street-food craze in 2011 with its Mini Street Tacos LTO, which offered three small, soft corn tortillas filled with the guest's choice of slow-roasted pulled pork or seasoned shredded beef, topped with red onion and cilantro garnish. The company also revamped its loyalty program and tested a whole-wheat tortilla option.


    CiCi's Pizza

    If CiCi's was hoping to get a head start in 2011 on its "Build the Brand" initiative, through which it hopes to open 500 new stores in the next eight to 10 years, then it must have been sorely disappointed. Store count and sales both fell between 2010 and 2011. But don't count CiCi's out; CEO Mike Shumsky has big plans for the company, which kicked off in 2012 with a prototype test, online ordering roll out, new ad campaign ("There's More Where That Came From"), new website, and incentives and financing options to attract franchisees.


    In-N-Out Burger

    Sorry, East Coasters: Though burger fanatics east of the Mississippi hoped In-N-Out's 2011 move into Texas—greeted with five-hour lines and weeping fans—signaled a broader expansion strategy from the famously slow-growth company, it's been all crickets ever since. With the better-burger category saturating markets high and low, though, and showing no signs of slowing, In-N-Out surely feels the pressure to reconsider its strategy.



    And the award for biggest tumble down the QSR 50 goes to … Baskin-Robbins? Despite several new flavor LTOs and the launch of on-trend, customizable, bite-sized Mini Ice Cream Cones, a $70 million sales hit sent Baskin-Robbins plunging eight spots down the list.


    Tim Hortons

    Probably not every quick-serve company was dying to secure the title sponsorship of the 2012 NHL All-Star Game, but it was a coup for Tim Hortons, a Canadian company whose namesake was a star hockey player. Similarly, Tim Hortons spent 2011 making its way into more sports stadiums and arenas.


    Einstein Bros. Bagels

    Much of Einstein Bros.' 2011 was spent expanding, as it did when it debuted in Chicago and opened its first Marriott location, as well as focusing on charitable events like the Mile High United Way Turkey Trot race. Moving forward, the company is hoping its Smart Choices menu of lighter options can attract a new kind of clientele.


    Captain D's

    Like fellow seafood quick serve Long John Silver's, Captain D's has struggled the last few years to sustain brand momentum. But with CEO Phil Greifeld, who came on in 2010, and new CMO Jonathan Muhtar, Captain D's is hoping it can dig in and find some footing in a wide-open seafood segment. Earlier this year, the brand tasked Dallas-based TM Advertising with helping it do just that.



    The Italian chain's six-spot plunge from last year, complete with an $80 million sales fall and loss of 70 net stores from the previous year, may signal doom and gloom to some. But Sbarro emerged from Chapter 11 with reduced debt, cleaned house in the C-suite, and brought on James Greco, former CEO of Bruegger's Bagels, to head up its turn around. Don't be surprised if Sbarro begins a new climb up the QSR 50 in 2013.



    For the second year in a row, Krystal brings up the rear at the bottom of the QSR 50 pile. But optimists surely see a reason to bet on this horse; with a new owner (Atlanta-based private investment firm Argonne Capital Group LLC) and a new CEO (restaurant industry veteran Doug Pendergast), Krystal and its passionate fan base have plenty to be excited about.