Special Report | August 2014 | By Kathy Hayden

The Contenders

Fifteen brands knocking on the QSR 50’s door.
Growing quick service restaurants contend with industry elite for top status.
Pretzel favorite Auntie Anne’s added new menu items like Mini Pretzel Dogs and a pepperoni-topped pretzel. Auntie Anne’s
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Competition for a spot on the QSR 50 remains fluid, with several Contenders having once held a spot on the big list. Rising brands with hopes to crack the QSR 50 for the first time include Firehouse Subs, Noodles & Company, and Jersey Mike’s, each of which grew in both sales and store counts in 2013. Potbelly Sandwich Works, meanwhile, joined the Contenders list for the first time, fresh off a 2013 initial public offering that thrust it into the national spotlight. Fiesta Restaurant Group brands Taco Cabana and Pollo Tropical also made their Contenders debut, with growth strategies in place that the parent company hopes will push it closer to the industry elite.

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RankCompany/Chain Name2013 U.S. Systemwide Sales (Millions)2013 U.S. Average Sales per Unit (thousands)Number of Franchised Units in 2013Number of Company Units in 2013sort ascendingTotal Units in 2013Total Change in Units from 2012
60Taco John's$330.1$820.039484021
53CiCi's Pizza$440.6$913.24631347643
51Auntie Anne's$447.0$503.01,062171,07982
58Cold Stone Creamery$369.2$373.09682299041
55Jersey Mike's *$406.0$625.068924713129
52Firehouse Subs$442.9$695.869230722146
65Fuddruckers *$289.0$1,620.011563178-1
62Pollo Tropical$305.5$2,667.33910214115
61Corner Bakery Cafe$323.0$2,200.04911015912
59Au Bon Pain$344.2$1,991.07913321215
64Taco Cabana$291.6$1,783.041651695
63Potbelly Sandwich Works$304.8$1,070.01129630738
54Noodles & Company$408.8$1,200.06231838053
57Sbarro *$370.0$640.0164408572-30
*Includes figures estimated by Technomic Inc.


Auntie Anne’s

Finding more nontraditional venues, like travel plazas and airports, boosted Auntie Anne’s to the top Contender spot and contributed to a $37 million sales boost in 2013 over 2012. Along with a focus on new settings and flexible store sizes—for example, inline stores and baking kiosks—the pretzel chain is making the most of the snacking trend, offering heartier bites like Mini Pretzel Dogs and a pepperoni-topped pretzel, along with a new breakfast lineup.


Firehouse Subs

After a 2012 that boosted its system-wide sales by $100 million over 2011, Firehouse Subs continued its hot streak, boasting $63 million in system-wide sales growth in 2013 and adding 146 total units to the chain. The momentum should continue in 2014, as a new “Hearty and Flavorful” menu adds options that are less than 500 calories, while more drive-thru service will add incremental sales.


CiCi’s Pizza

Despite falling out of the QSR 50, where it held the 46 spot last year, budget-friendly buffet chain CiCi’s Pizza did add 43 net units and hauled in $440.6 million in system-wide sales in 2013. In June of last year, CiCi’s added a “Buffet on the Go” offer, giving an incremental lift to overall profits by combining the convenience of takeout with the choice of a buffet, but still at the $5 price point.


Noodles & Company

Noodles & Company went public in December 2012 and continued to show solid growth through 2013, adding 53 new units and increasing sales by $58 million over 2012. Flatbread specials, new salads, and flavor-forward options like Thai Hot Pots helped round out the brand’s varied menu.


Jersey Mike’s

While falling short of its goal to crack the QSR 50, Jersey Mike’s did jump five spots in the Contender rankings, with $406 million in system-wide sales—a $72 million increase from 2012—and 129 units added to its store count. The franchise system now has more than 1,300 locations open and under development, taking to all corners of the U.S. its claim to fame: sandwiches served “Mike’s Way,” with onions, lettuce, tomatoes, vinegar, oil, and spices.