The QSR 50

  • Your annual guide to the industry’s 50 top-performing brands.

    istockphoto / anna bryukhanova
    Far and away the No. 1 quick-service brand, McDonald’s still has plenty to worry about, including sliding consumer perception and a string of bad sales quarters.



    The Golden Arches’ now-years-long slump has shifted from curious anomaly to serious quagmire, a challenge that company brass seem to grow more impatient with every day. That impatience came through loud and clear in March when CEO Don Thompson announced his resignation and company veteran Steve Easterbrook was tapped to fill his shoes. It also showed itself in May, when Easterbrook starred in a much-hyped video in which he spelled out exactly how McDonald’s would turn things around, a plan that includes an organizational restructuring and a refranchising initiative.

    But the impatience is seen on the development front, too, as the company has thrown an awful lot of (proverbial) spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. There’s the new “Create Your Taste” burger-customization program the brand is testing at select stores, and the axe it’s wielded against lesser-performing menu items. There’s also the all-day breakfast push, which McDonald’s seems to finally be embracing. Who knows: Maybe the antibiotic-free chicken will be enough to convince responsibly minded customers to return to the Happy Meal nostalgia of their roots, or maybe the new-and-improved Hamburglar will sway enough hipster Millennials to bring their kids by for a spin through the PlayPlace to create a whole new legion of followers.

    There is some precedence here; McDonald’s seems to suffer through at least one serious slump per decade, and at least up until now has righted the ship—and then some—every time. Will the same be said for its current losing streak? Only time will tell.



    Few brands had as much to crow about as Howard Schultz and company in 2014. The company posted the largest sales influx of any quick serve last year with a $900 million–plus climb over the previous year, and it rallied off headline after headline of not only development news—there were new baked goods, specialty beverages, and wraps, as well as a commitment to add more food and alcohol products in the next five years—but also progressive news, like its new mobile-ordering platform, delivery tests, and the Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room, which gives the company a whole new prototype for potential growth.



    If you thought Subway was impervious to struggle, think again. Last year marked the first time since 2008 that Subway found itself in anything but the No. 2 spot on the QSR 50, ceding the position to Starbucks after watching its systemwide sales fall a staggering $800 million in 2014. This was despite adding 778 stores to its net unit count, a combination that dropped the brand’s average unit volume and suggested the company might at last be bumping back against some market saturation. Founder Fred DeLuca, however, disagrees; he announced last year an ambition to add 8,000 new restaurants by 2020.


    Burger King

    The wrestling match between Burger King and Wendy’s for the position as the industry’s second-biggest burger joint continued in 2014, with Burger King coming out on top after posting a $100 million sales climb over 2013. The brand’s healthier Satisfries may have been a disappointment—they were yanked from the menu last August—but Burger King turned that frown upside down at the end of 2014 when it merged with Tim Hortons in a $11 billion mega-deal and relocated its corporate headquarters to Canada.



    Wendy’s may have lost the burger war with Burger King, but its menu development department might yet prove victorious. The company launched a bevy of creative dishes in the last year, including a BBQ Pulled Pork line, new sandwich builds on its brioche bun, and Ghost Pepper Fries, while it also tested a build-your-own-sandwich platform. But menu news wasn’t all the Freckled Lady had to offer; the company announced this summer that it would open 90 Degrees Labs in Columbus, Ohio, as a center where employees could explore new technology innovations.


    Taco Bell

    Oh Taco Bell, how does a restaurant writer count the ways to love thee? Your cup overfloweth with news; your streets are paved with milk-filled Cap’n Crunch Donuts and Jalapeño Honey. In the last year, there was the novel (the Donuts test and the Biscuit Taco with Jalapeño Honey), the responsible (the announcement to remove artificial ingredients), the innovative (a new mobile ordering app and a delivery test), the ambitious (plans to be a $14 billion brand by 2022 with 1,300 international units by 2023), and the irreverent (the shots fired at McDonald’s in advertisements supporting the breakfast menu). And all of it seemed to work; last year, Taco Bell did $400 million better in sales over 2013 and added nearly 600 units to its net count.