The Contenders

    The 15 brands that came just short of the QSR 50.

    auntie anne’s

    Auntie Anne’s refreshed the brand with a new store prototype.

    The evolution of the limited-service restaurant industry continued in 2014, as traditional powerhouses faltered while fast casuals and other rising concepts asserted themselves as forces to be reckoned with. For the first time in the history of the QSR 50, a fast casual entered the top 10, as Panera Bread leapfrogged KFC to land a spot in the industry elite. Meanwhile, Subway ceded the No. 2 spot to Starbucks after an $800 million sales tumble, Chick-fil-A grew by $700 million to become larger than every pizza brand in the country, and Wingstop claimed the biggest jump of the year, with an 11-spot leap.

    The Contenders, meanwhile, witnessed less upheaval than the QSR 50. Though there are a few new faces in the lineup—including Marco’s Pizza and Schlotzsky’s—this year’s crowd of Contenders is pretty familiar, with brands like Auntie Anne’s, Cold Stone, and Krystal still unable to crack or return to the QSR 50. Here’s what they were up to in the last year.

    Click column headers to sort
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    *Includes figures estimated by Technomic Inc.

    51 TIE

    Auntie Anne’s

    In May 2014, the pretzel concept put a twist on its prototype with the first store redesign in brand history, featuring the look and feel of a home kitchen with a warmer color palette, more prominent brand messaging, and upgraded back-of-house equipment. The brand also launched its My Pretzel Perks mobile loyalty app, while opening its 13th theme park unit at Universal CityWalk in Orlando, Florida. The result: A system-wide sales increase of more than $40 million year over year.

    51 TIE


    Tumbling 13 spots, Quiznos continued its collapse in 2014, falling off the QSR 50 for the first time since 2002. The sandwich brand spent much of 2014 closing more franchise units, which helped its AUV climb slightly higher over 2013. The good news? Its international business continues to soar. The company is aiming to open more than 1,000 units in 40 countries by the end of the decade, targeting markets in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Abu Dhabi, among other countries. It also inked the largest franchise deal in history earlier this year, signing up to open 1,500 units in China.


    Noodles & Co.

    After making a stock market splash with its 2013 IPO, Noodles & Co. expanded its noodle offerings outside the unit, rolling out a nationwide catering program last July that features buffet-style meals for $12 per person. The brand also made some moves on the purchasing front, buying out 16 franchise units for more than $13 million, largely concentrated in the Indianapolis area.


    McAlister’s Deli

    Though it fell from its No. 50 spot in the QSR 50, McAlister’s did have something to celebrate in 2014: its 25th anniversary. It also signed development deals in markets ranging from New York and Chicago to Arizona and Texas, while recruiting former Cosí CEO Carin Stutz as brand president in mid-November.


    CiCi’s Pizza

    CiCi’s continues to slide down the QSR 50 and Contenders ranks, but a busy 2014 may have it moving back up as soon as next year. Undergoing a major brand revamp to bring its focus back to quality, cleanliness, and service, CiCi’s launched the “Remarkable Product Movement” rebrand that resulted in a cleanliness initiative, menu innovations, and ingredient upgrades. Leading the efforts was a new CMO, former Sbarro exec Sarah McAloon, who also helped roll out social media and TV ads to support the efforts.



    Keeping a sharp focus on its goal to become a $1 billion brand, Krystal introduced its first new menu item in four years in 2014: Krystal Stackers. Grilled to order and made with 100 percent beef, the stackers feature double the amount of meat and toppings as the brand’s classic Krystal burger.


    Cold Stone Creamery

    After signing a 10-year master franchise agreement in Kenya in 2014, Cold Stone plans to open seven creameries in the African nation over the next five years alone. Jumping into the retail space, Cold Stone also introduced Milk Shakers, a line of on-the-go shakes available in flavors like Chocolate Fudge Brownie and Strawberry Swirl.


    Corner Bakery

    Rising three spots on the
    Contenders List and inching its way ever closer to the QSR 50, Corner Bakery continued to expand its franchising program, signing up partners in markets like Montana and New York City while adding 25 units throughout the year. It also appointed a new chief development officer, former Panera exec Michael Nolan, in an effort to continue ramping up its growth and expansion strategy.


    Au Bon Pain

    The bakery brand must have caught a case of the Cronut craze in 2014, because in March, Au Bon Pain introduced the CroisBun, a croissant-bun hybrid featuring fillings like strawberry and sweet cheese. What Au Bon Pain wasn’t as big on last year was unit growth, as the brand opened just three new units.


    Potbelly Sandwich Works

    Potbelly had a solid year of growth, and not just in terms of its rise up the Contenders list. U.S. systemwide sales were up more than $25 million year over year, AUV rose to nearly $1.2 million, and its unit count increased by 44, with new stores opening from Arkansas to North Dakota.


    Taco John’s

    With a new tagline (“Unwrap the Original”), signage, employee uniforms, POP materials, advertising, and more under its belt, it’s safe to say that Taco John’s had a busy 2014. Its rebrand will continue this year, touching on areas like menu development and brand standards, in addition to the exploration of two new restaurant designs.


    Marco’s Pizza

    Last year was the year of growth for the Ohio-based concept, as it added nearly 140 stores to its unit count in 2014, pushing the brand’s U.S. systemwide sales higher than $310 million and earning it a debut on the Contenders list.


    Pollo Tropical

    Though it fell one spot in the 2014 quick-serve ranks, Pollo Tropical increased its U.S. systemwide sales slightly to nearly $308 million. The brand also made its debut in Texas in March 2014, launching the first of more than 20 planned units over the course of the year.


    Taco Cabana

    After making its debut on the Contenders list last year, Taco Cabana held steady at the No. 64 spot, bringing U.S. systemwide sales up past the $300 million mark. The Mexican quick serve also spiced up its signature salsa bar with its LTO Salsa Especial program in August, which saw the debut of salsas like Roasted Tomatillo and Avocado Cilantro during the second half of the year.


    Schlotzsky’s Deli

    Although it opened its first-ever unit in Russia in 2014, the deli brand focused most of its efforts on domestic expansion, primarily in the Oklahoma market. Schlotzsky’s also launched its Lotz4Me smartphone app, giving customers access to its loyalty program and exclusive offers—which it celebrated last June by giving away 1 million sandwiches.