This portion of the list consists almost entirely of contenders with bright futures. Oddly enough, the most questionable ‘contender’ would be the chain which made the largest jump from last year, Arby’s. Don’t get me wrong, Arby’s still even sounds gross, but it’s hard to keep denying their “clout” at 3,400 locations, and moderately successful recent renovations of both appearance and menu. On the other side, Chipotle took a nasty fall in the rankings, but don’t misinterpret this. The fall is more based on an overly exuberant and optimistic ranking last year than any steps they are taking in the wrong direction. For perspective, Chipotle was more accurately spotted at 15th in 2013. Everything is still trending upward for Chipotle, they simply are not large enough, yet, (1,800 stores) to merit inclusion in the top ten.
Previous on the 2015 list: #20-16
Check out the 2014 list
#15. Panera (-1)
It’s like Starbucks…with food. Panera has carved out a robust model of healthy food, coffee, and hanging out, appealing to vast circles of students, business lunches, time-killers, health-conscious moms, and pretty much everyone McDonald’s was trying to capture from Starbucks in their McCafe launch. There’s no reason why this brand won’t continue scaling the charts.
#14. Arby’s (+6)
Once known for getting people to actually pay for hot, fast food roast beef, Arby’s now also has brought in real food. They have (gasp) salads! They also charge close to Panera-level prices in hopes of making people believe the quality is similar. Arby’s, like most of the old guard fast food franchises, has a long painful road ahead as it seeks to re-brand and morph to the trends driving the next generation of fast-casual, but they do have a solid existing base.
#13. Chipotle (-10)
Not sure what ‘fast-casual’ is? Look no farther than Chipotle, the poster child for this new world. They feature healthy offerings, customizable options, simplicity of menu, and a pricetag to match their hip appearance. Chipotle has blazed the trail for restaurants that want to profit from a desire for better quality, yet with the casual atmosphere unencumbered by tipping for service staff.
#11 (b). Five Guys (-6)
Five Guys could carry the other side of the fast-casual banner. They were the it-child of the mid-thousands, and have grown faster than almost any other fast food business, now spotting over 2,500 stores. Why the drop from last year? Another case of over-optimism. In 2013, Five Guys was still at 11th. There is still another whole echelon, perhaps two that must be crossed to break into the serious, international-level clout which top ten franchises carry.
#11. (a) Chick-fil-a
In case you haven’t noticed, Chick-fil-a is killing it. I mean, they’re popular even in places which hate their conservative ethos. Technically, because of their age and expansive presence, CfA is part of the ‘old guard’ of fast food, but you would never notice it. They have adapted and snapped forward more adeptly than any of their colleagues, borne on the wings of unparalleled customer service. Chick-fil-a now rakes in over 5 billion in sales per year. For perspective, that’s five times as much as Sonic, and twice as much as Taco Bell.