The fast casual industry has continued seeing steady growth, with the segment remaining at the forefront of the foodservice industry. Although sales fluctuated this year due to economic uncertainty from the election and decreasing grocery prices, many concepts continued to add new locations. This consistent development has sparked considerable momentum as we enter the new year.
According to Technomic, sales for the Top 250 fast casual brands increased 11.6% in year-over-year sales from 2015 to 2016, with the top 10 surpassing 6%. Industry leaders like McDonald’s and Panera Bread adjusted their tactics to remain relevant in the space, adding all day breakfast and removing artificial ingredients, while many up-and-comers like Chop Chop Rice Co. turned to franchising to improve scope and scale.
So, which brands ended up on top with a strategy set for success into 2017? Here are the top 25 fast casual brands to watch:
Unit Count: 2,024 cafes in 46 states
Investment Range: $942,000- $1.6 million
Panera Bread was one of the first chains to publicly remove all artificial ingredients from its menu, dropping more than 150 food additives and replacing with fresh, natural and minimally processed foods. The company closed out 2015 with more than 1,900 locations and as of September 2016, Panera’s site states there are 2,024 cafes in 46 states. The brand is building off rapid development and increased sales as it enters the next year, closing out Q3 with more than $684 million in profits. Panera is a trailblazer for other fast casuals looking to make the switch to a more health conscious approach.
Unit Count: 600 units across 11 countries
Investment Range: $211,362- $366,453.50
Pita Pit announced its 600th store opening in February and launched a revamped brand image in the fall, shifting focus from the fresh, healthy concept the brand was founded on to the high quality of its flavor-packed pitas. Pita Pit also started highlighting top selling items with limited time offers like the Chicken Souvlaki Pita to entice regular customers to try something a little different and draw interest from new customers and potential franchisees.
"Pita Pit's growth goals have always been centered around finding great franchisees and great locations, with a focus on delivering a great experience,” said Pita Pit President Peter Riggs. “We never say, ‘we absolutely have to open X number of stores this year.’ Instead, our main focus is opening stores where we can provide the level of quality product people have come to expect from Pita Pit.”
Unit Count: 1,900 restaurants nationally and internationally
Investment Range: N/A
With more than 1,900 locations globally, Panda Express has proudly become America’s largest Chinese restaurant chain, serving favorites like Orange Chicken and Broccoli Beef and consistently adding new items to the menu. Panda Express has more than double the number of locations than its next biggest competitor, Pei Wei, and shows no sign of slowing down. The chain’s privately held company Panda Restaurant Group Inc. started investing in alternative companies that sell everything from pizzas to salad. The goal is to aid in growing smaller chains, learn how to utilize delivery and strengthen international growth.
Unit Count: 100 U.S. locations
Investment Range: N/A
Shake Shack released its quarterly numbers in early November of 2016 and revenue had jumped a whopping 40 percent to $74.6 million year over year. This spike comes on the heels of a 2015 same-store sales increase of 17 percent. The company has introduced a number of new menu items this year including a few successful limited time offerings. Continued innovation is key to the company’s success and looking ahead, the brand is introducing new seasonal shake flavors. Founded in 2004 as a kiosk location in New York City, Shake Shack has grown significantly in 12 years, opening the 100th location in August and celebrating ongoing overseas expansion.
Unit Count: 38 U.S. locations in 11 states
Investment Range: $311,750 - $475,105
As one of the originators of the fast casual pizza franchise, this down-the-line concept takes pride in its unique topping combinations with its “Craft Pie Series,” a monthly rotating pie crafted by the creative minds of the Your Pie team. The series reaffirms Founder Drew French’s Italian roots with the use of fresh ingredients and even family recipes. The brand is quickly becoming one of the leaders in the fast casual pizza category. With 37 locations across the country and dozens more in development, Your Pie is gearing up to take an even bigger bite out of the competitive pizza segment.
Unit Count: 6 corporately owned locations, 12 franchised units, more than 200 in development
Investment Range: $231,600 - $834,000
This bustling street food business started off in New York City and started franchising in 2014 after recognizing the concept was filling a void for Middle Eastern cuisine in the fast casual space. The chain currently has more than 12 franchised locations, more than 200 units in development across the United States and recently sparked international development. With its cult following, affordable cuisine and high demand, Halal Guys is definitely a newcomer in the space to watch.
Unit Count: 2,522 national and international locations
Investment Range: $325,500 - $555,000
Jimmy Johns’ freaky fast delivery helped earn the brand $2,018,700 in sales in 2015. The franchise closed out 2015 with 2,450 locations, reporting 16 percent growth over 2014. Jimmy Johns recently sold a majority stake to Roark Capital Group, current investor of major brands like Arby’s and Carl’s Jr., which could mean the brand is looking at expanding globally. Plan on hearing even more about this sandwich giant’s development over the next few years.
Unit Count: 100-120 locations nationally and internationally
Investment Range: $334,950 - $529,700
Founded in 2007, the brand has received numerous accolades including Best Fast Casual Restaurant by Franchiserankings.com and one of Fast Casual’s Top 100 Movers & Shakers. MOOYAH launched a new “Taste to Try” campaign this year, offering guests new burger combinations every month and reporting improvement of both customer engagement and month-over-month sales. After expanding into major metros like Boston and Los Angeles in 2016, MOOYAH Burgers, Fries & Shakes is anticipating incredible growth entering 2017, looking towards expanding into key markets, growing on existing markets and increasing international presence.
Unit Count: 350 restaurants in 28 states
Investment Range: $579,000 - $944,000
Famous sweet tea wasn’t the only thing making this brand $548 million in system-wide sales in 2015. The brand launched a new restaurant design in 2015 and opened 27 new restaurants, maintaining steady growth with a current roster of more than 361 restaurants in 28 states. Locations nationwide now sport a wide variety of seating areas with a more inviting atmosphere, even reintroducing chalkboard inspired menus similar to those the brand used at launch.
Unit Count: 410 shops in 39 states and 11 countries
Investment Range: $282,500 - $576,250
Dallas-based sandwich concept Which Wich Superior Sandwiches launched a new online ordering process and rolled out delivery which is being implemented in various locations across the country. Making technology accessible as new systems, designs and products are introduced to the market has improved the customer service experience for Which Wich’s guests and ultimately led to increased expansion. The chain also launched a new kid’s menu in 2016, geared towards the preferences of moms and the preferred flavor profiles of their kids, along with several different LTOs based on current food trends like the Superfood Wich. Which Wich also has a year-long nationwide charity initiative, Project PB&J, where each location agrees to match a guests donation of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with one of their own.
Unit Count: 14 U.S. locations
Investment Range: N/A
An innovator in healthy fast casual, Wow Bao has seen success in major metros like D.C. and Chicago down to college campuses like the University of Vermont and Kent State. Aside from baos, the concept also offers classic Asian fare including fried rice, hot buns and noodle/rice bowls. With successful parent group Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises at the helm, Wow Bao’s concept is sure to see rapid expansion building off of their 14 locations.
Unit Count: More than 70 U.S. locations in 14 states
Investment Range: $262,663- $490,649
The Wisconsin-based better pizza franchise has doubled in size over the last three years and continues to entice multi-unit investors to join its ranks with a solid concept, compelling AUVs and high quality ingredients. Toppers Pizza has been recognized by both Entrepreneur and QSR Magazines in 2016 as one of the top 500 franchises in the states and one of the year’s Best Franchise Deals. The franchise has become famous for its wide assortment of toppings and to drive the point home, Toppers recently removed the extra cost per additional topping, inviting pizza lovers to customize without breaking the bank.
Unit Count: 1023 locations
Investment Range: $131,150 to $928,405
Firehouse Subs has continued to stun the industry with year-over-year growth since launch. Brothers and founders Chris and Robin Sorensen opened their first location in 1994 and surpassed the opening of their 1000th unit this year. Sticking to the charitable roots the brand was founded on, the brand celebrated by donating $1 million to support the 1,000 Automated External Defibrillator Gift Campaign according to a company release. The commitment to the brand’s cause has taken this sub chain to the top.
Unit Count: 25 U.S. locations
Investment Range: N/A
Roti Modern Mediterranean underwent a name change and launched a new prototype restaurant to drive home the brand’s fresh concept. The Chicago-based chain is aiming to open hundreds of locations across the U.S. within the next 10 years and recently added alcohol to the menu at a test location. The company also puts a heavy focus on giving back to local communities, donating a portion of sales at many of the grand openings.
Unit Count: 600 U.S. and international locations
Investment Range: $181,100 - $422,950
The innovator in the smoothie segment has reported a great year for growth. The 800-unit brand is set up to surpass 1,000 locations globally in the next year and successfully launched a line of Coffee High Protein Smoothie flavors including Almond Mocha, Vanilla, Raspberry Mocha and Cinnamon Latte. The brand has become a staple for consumers as they continue to seek healthy and active lifestyles. Smoothie King has succeeded in reaching this target market for more than 40 years and continues to see expansive growth in key target markets like Houston and Phoenix. The chain even opened its first location in the Middle East this year with the first Smoothie King in Dubai. With no end in sight for expansion, Smoothie King’s success in 2017 is limitless.
Unit Count: 1,350 locations nationwide
Investment Range: $306,200 – $716,250
Five Guys is building off of another successful year, celebrating expansion in major metro markets like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Boston and opening their first Hawaii location in 2016. The brand currently has more than 1,000 locations nationwide with another 1,500 in development, boasting system-wide revenue growth of 820 percent to $1.6 billion in 2016. Offering high quality ingredients has become a staple, but the chain also doesn’t charge extra for common upsell items like guacamole and bacon..
Saladworks is looking ahead after celebrating the concept’s 30th anniversary this year by giving away free salads to the first 30 customers in line. The chain redesigned the stores’ interior, launched a loyalty program and updated its menu to offer fresh, seasonal ingredients. Saladworks is aiming to surpass 100 franchised restaurants before the end of 2016, closing out the year by reveling in the success of locations in 14 states and two countries.
Unit Count: 410
Investment Range: $605,630 - $1,147,780
The chain’s unit growth has been slowing as overexpansion has made maintaining service and consistency difficult. However, Noodles & Company is working on a company overhaul. The brand is rumored to be closing underperforming stores to boost sales numbers and ultimately improve expansion -- the company owns 455 of the 491 reported open locations in 2015. The team is also working to add variety to top sellers on the menu like Mac & Cheese, with the recent launches of a Bacon Mac & Cheeseburger, Buffalo Chicken Mac & Cheese and BBQ Pork Mac & Cheese.
Unit Count: More than 160
Investment Range: N/A
The San Antonio-based brand remodeled locations system wide in 2015 and recently made a few adjustments to the menu. As of 2015, Taco Cabana had 166 locations nationwide and under new leadership, is gearing up to break the 200 mark. With handmade menu items and an open-flame grill, Taco Cabana is aiming to become one of the top preferences In American fast casual Mexican cuisine.
Unit Count: 3 units
Investment Range: $383,700 to $669,700
As the innovator of the fast casual Japanese segment, Chop Chop Rice Co is off to a running start. The Texas-based brand opened its third corporate-owned location in Canyon, TX in 2015 and recently started franchising, looking to expand beyond the boundaries of the Lone Star state. Total initial investment according to the IFA ranges from $383,700 to $669,700 which includes options for multi-unit development. Chop Chop concentrates on fresh, fast and simple food at a great value and offers gluten-free versions of its customizable entrees with ingredients like steak, pork, fish and grilled veggies.
Unit Count: 27 U.S. locations
Investment Range: N/A
After receiving an investment from Roark Capital Group, authentic Middle-Eastern fast casual brand Naf Naf Grill is set for national expansion. The majority of the brand’s 25 locations are in the Chicago area, but Naf Naf Grill is aiming to reach 29 locations throughout the U.S. before the end of the year. The chain recently opened a location in Philadelphia, has signed real estate in the greater Detroit area and is already gearing up to open 15 restaurants in 2017. Naf Naf specializes in customizable pitas and bowls with options that include falafel, steak and chicken shawarma.
Unit Count: More than 800 in 17 states
Investment Range: $209,500 - $646,100
Zaxby’s celebrated another year of system wide growth, increasing sales by 15.8 percent and ending the year with 598 franchised units and 128 company-owned units. This growth increased the brand’s unit volume by 10.3 percent according to Nation’s Restaurant News. The brand hit a billion dollars in sales growth in 2013 and continues to impact the fast casual industry by increasing unit volume quickly yet intelligently.
Unit Count: 217 restaurants in 26 states
Investment Range: $750,000
Fazoli’s is closing out 2016 with a bang. As of October, the brand reported same-store sales growth in 17 of the last 18 quarters according to QSR. Fazoli’s has had strong company performance since the brand overhaul in 2011 and now has 220 restaurants in 24 states. The company is also launching enhanced customer-facing technology, upgraded the menu and added a catering menu based on guest feedback.
Unit Count: 641in the U.S. and Canada
Investment Range: $594,000 - $795,000
With major competitor Chipotle still facing backlash from customers, Qdoba has come to the forefront in the Mexican fast casual segment. The chain recently rebranded and shifted its headquarters from the Denver area to San Diego. Qdoba has kept an innovate approach throughout the years, recently testing new flavors of its famous queso like Buffalo Bacon and Queso Verde. The brand has also worked to enhance customer experience by remodeling existing restaurants, implementing new designs and testing alcohol sales in a sample of both company and franchise owned locations.
Unit Count: 43 locations in 10 states
Investment Range: $827,250 - $1,409,500
Fayetteville, Arkansas-based brand Slim Chickens is aiming to open 600 locations within the next 10 years, building off the success the brand has seen with the first 40 locations in the U.S.. The chain has seen rapid success growing in states like Texas and Louisiana, but as it nears the 50-location milestone, Slim Chickens is shifting its focus towards Midwestern states with large growth potential like Missouri, Illinois and Nebraska. Slim’s offers fresh, Southern flavors at a great price and continues to add innovative new items to the menu like the Cayenne Ranch Chicken Sandwich launched in 2016.