For several years, we’ve documented the QSR 50 Contenders—those brands that barely missed out on being among the 50 biggest limited-service brands in the U.S.
This time around, it’s become more apparent than ever that the Contenders is less a waiting room for brands than it is a revolving door. While several companies are on the up and destined for QSR 50 greatness, many others have already gotten a taste of that status and find themselves sliding back from the pack.
To look at this year’s Contenders list is to be excited for those brands on the rise; there’s Noodles & Company, Corner Bakery, and Pollo Tropical, which represent long-time Contenders finally poised to break into the 50, and there’s also Dickey’s, Hungry Howie’s, and Charleys, all three new to the list and hungry to climb further.
But this year’s Contenders list also hosts once-heavyweight brands that are seeing their purchase on elite status slip from their grasp. Long John Silver’s, Cold Stone Creamery, Krystal, and Einstein Bros. have all spent significant time on the QSR 50. And then, of course, there’s Quiznos, which once sat in the top 20 and wrestled with Subway for sandwich market share.
Do the newbies stand a shot at climbing into the QSR 50? And can the old stalwarts right the ship? Read on to find out what’s going on with brands 51–65.
Noodles & Company
Noodles & Co. is oh-so-close to finally graduating from its Contender status and onto the QSR 50. In addition to pushing its gift card specials, the brand embarked on an "Asian Exploration" with the introduction of Korean BBQ Meatballs with Gochujang Sauce—making it the first national chain to feature the popular condiment.
Long John Silver's
Long the leader in quick-service seafood, Long John Silver's ceded that throne to Captain D's in 2015 while also dropping off the QSR 50 for the first time. This year it drummed up some excitement with the Coastal Cod sandwich, a lightly fried Alaskan Cod fillet that is breaded in Panko crumbs, served on a Hawaiian-style bun, and complemented with tartar sauce and dill pickle slices.
Cold Stone Creamery
Kahala Brands–owned Cold Stone has focused a lot of attention in the last few years on international growth, opening in countries like India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. But the ice cream concept, which had enjoyed several years among the QSR 50 elite, is back on the right track at home, too, having celebrated 11 straight quarters of same-store sales growth earlier this year. The company attributes much of last year's success—it added nearly $100 million to its sales—to its new frozen coffee Frappe line of beverages.
New products turned up on the Cicis menu in the past year, like the Flatbread Pizzas and the Bacon Stuffed Crust Pizza. But it's the rebranding that really turned heads; late last year, the pizza-buffet chain tweaked its name and logo, and also rolled out a modern store prototype that incorporates a new color palette, graphics, and restaurant layout.
It's never easy to modernize an 80-plus-year-old company, but Krystal seems up to the task. The slider chain introduced a new store design that features a vibrant color package, LED lighting, enhanced digital menuboards, and artwork that reflects the brand's heritage, while also rolling out a clever ad campaign featuring talking food puppets—puppets designed by none other than the Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
Perhaps no other brand on the Contenders—or on the QSR 50, for that matter—has as much momentum as Marco's. The Ohio-based chain added more than $100 million to its system-wide sales in 2015, while also adding nearly 100 locations to its net unit count. This helped the company skip six spots on the list, just one year after its Contenders debut.
Einstein Bros. Bagels
Acquired by JAB Holdings at the end of 2014, Einstein Bros.—the biggest bagel concept in the U.S.—has spent the time since trimming locations and remaining relatively quiet on the development front. One promising front for Einstein Bros.? Its partnership with Caribou Coffee, which has seen the two companies cobrand several locations.
Potbelly Sandwich Shop
Like fellow sandwich slinger Jimmy John's, Potbelly follows the mantra "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The company, which went public in 2013, is dialed in on growth, having added 44 net locations and more than $50 million in system-wide sales in 2015.
Corner Bakery Café
One of the nation's largest bakery-café chains is steadily growing and pinpointing new markets to conquer. New CEO Frank Paci, who took over from Mike Hislop last year (Hislop remains as chairman of the board), is now actively exploring ways the quality-driven fast casual can communicate value to consumers while also protecting the culinary integrity of the menu.
As the Florida anchor for Texas-based parent company Fiesta Restaurant Group (which also owns fast casual Taco Cabana), Pollo Tropical has recently focused on expanding in Fiesta's home state, which has included opening in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.
The Wyoming-based taco joint is bolstering its East Coast presence while also connecting more with customers through a new loyalty app. For more info on Taco John's trajectory, check out the Q&A with CEO Jeff Linville on Page 112.
Dickey's Barbecue Pit
New to the Contenders list, Dickey's crossed the 500-unit mark in 2015 and shows no signs of slowing its growth down. The barbecue concept has innovated with everything from its menu—Pulled Pork Sliders and Street Tacos were more recent hits—to its workforce, which has included new uniforms, training programs, and employee succession plans. Dickey's is also tweaking its store prototype, which last year included a new design that puts an open-kitchen layout and glass butcher case front and center.
There has been little good news for Quiznos in the last five years, as it has closed stores and faded from Americans' collective dining-out consciousness at an astonishing speed. The company that once had more than 5,000 locations and threatened Subway for sandwich domination now has fewer than 1,000 units in the U.S. International president Kenneth Cutshaw left last year, and CEO Doug Pendergast departed earlier this year, with CFO Katie Scherping filling in on an interim basis.
Hungry Howie's Pizza
Another newbie to the Contenders list, Hungry Howie's—known across the Midwest for its flavored crusts—celebrated six years of sales growth earlier this year. To spur further growth, the company introduced a new store design and a new online ordering system, the latter of which increased ticket sales by 30 percent.
Charleys Philly Steaks
New menu development has helped drive interest in Charleys. The Columbus, Ohio–based Philly cheesesteak brand—a staple in many nontraditional locations, including malls—showed off several new items in the last year, including the Cheesy BBQ Chicken Sandwich, the Bacon BBQ Ranch Chicken Sandwich, the Double Bacon Potato Skin Fries, and the Habanero BBQ Chicken Sandwich.