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Top 25 QSR Brands to Watch in 2017
Keep an eye out for these breakout concepts expected to do big things in 2017

Quick service is an industry that will only continue to rise in popularity – having options for a quick and inexpensive meal is the American way. “People will always like cheap, convenient and tasty food,” said Sam Oches, Editorial Director at QSR Magazine. “QSR is the best industry poised to deliver on all of those things.”

Since the first fast food restaurant, A&W, was introduced in the U.S. in 1919, Americans have begun to rely on QSR brands for several meals a week. While fast casual concepts are posing a potential threat, QSR brands are expected to learn from these concepts instead of fall into the background.

“You’re going to start to see more quality experiences like comfortable restaurants and customer service,” said Oches. “The QSR space will continue to buckle down on what has made them so loved over these years, but also pull tips from fast casual concepts in the technology realm. We will see mobile ordering, online and loyalty programs, and touch screen kiosk activity.”

Of the hundreds of thousands of QSR concepts that exist in the United States, there are 25 brands that have managed to stand out in the industry and remain top contenders as far as growth, consistency and loyalty. Make sure to watch these brands in 2017 as they are expected to break through as the best of the best.

International Dairy Queen Inc.

Unit Count: 6,700

Investment Range: $361,450-$1,835,825

The Midwest-based brand boasts a whopping 6,700 locations in the United States, Canada and 27 other countries. With its thriving QSR concept, the Grill & Chill model, the franchise continues to witness steady growth, going beyond being known for just tasty treats. The brand had a goal to open 85 Grill & Chill models in 2016 and set the same goal for 2017, continuing the rapid growth with the new concept.

Chick fil A

Unit Count: 1,500

Initial Investment: $280,725-$814,650

This brand is dominating the QSR industry. Chick fil A is reported to generate more revenue per restaurant than any other QSR chain, with a reported $3.1 million average sales per restaurant in 2014. “It’s one of the best run QSR companies out there between the quality of its product, service and consistency,” said Oches. “The brand has such great loyalty to their customers that I would never bet against them.”

Chester’s

Unit Count: 1,116

Initial Investment: $14,351-$293,789

It all started with a fried doughnut and it took off from there. Chester’s has become the place to go for fried chicken with locations on college campuses, airports, convenience stores, truck stops and supermarkets. In 2016 alone, the fried chicken concept opened 56 new units and this number is expected to grow in the years to come, making Chester’s a brand to watch in the next year.

Cinnabon

Unit Count: 1,351

Initial Investment: $181,050-$325,500

Since launching its franchise opportunity in 1986, Cinnabon has opened more than 1,300 units. The company’s president, Kat Cole, helped turn the brand into a billion dollar business, opening 100 new bakeries in 2015 alone. We can surely expect to see more in the next coming years as the business continues to grow.

Jersey Mike’s

Unit Count: 1,142

Initial Investment: $177,943-$592,852

In 2015 alone, the brand opened 197 new locations across the country, which put the brand over 1,000 locations. In this same year, the brand awarded 97 territories, 70 of which went to existing owners who became multi-unit operators. The fresh sliced/grilled subs that offer to get everything “Mike’s Way” are fueling for another strong year in 2016 and are expected to continue the same path into next year.

Subway

Unit Count: 44,830

Initial Investment: $116,600-$263,150

Since eliminating artificial colors, flavors and preservatives in June of 2015, Subway has seen a somewhat consistent growth with some bumps in the road. With a lofty goal of reaching 50,000 stores by the end of 2017, Subway holds its spot as one of the largest franchises in the nation. “Subway has hit a rough patch the last two years, but if they put the pieces together they have the organization and are prepared to capitalize,” said Oches.

Sonic

Unit Count: 3,526

Initial Investment: $1,023,000-$1,765,000

Sonic is a QSR concept that provides an out of this world experience for its visitors. Known for its carhops on roller skates, it is the place to go for a burger and a pop, with an experience that is unlike any rivaling concepts. While the service might seem dated, the concept is current and growing. According to a press release from Sonic, the brand reportedly plans to open 33 new drive-ins within the state of California alone. With these growth numbers, Sonic is definitely one to keep your eye on next year.

Checkers & Rally’s

Unit Count: 834

Initial Investment: $165,796-$1,306,345

Checkers & Rally’s is one of the few QSR concepts that have seen consistent growth and a track record of success. In 2015 alone, the brand opened 37 new restaurants, putting the total restaurant tally at more than 800 restaurants throughout the country. Additionally, the brand is celebrating the fifth consecutive year of same-store sales growth system wide, which is only expected to increase going into 2017. Checkers & Rally’s is gearing up to launch its Model 4.0, which offers franchisees three unique design plans for buildout, including both modular and shipping container options that will be faster and more economical to construct.  

Auntie Anne’s

Unit Count: 1,689

Initial Investment: $199,475-$380,100

Anne Beiler, founder of Auntie Anne’s, was no stranger to the kitchen. Baking her entire life, she never thought to turn it into a business of her own until she was managing a concession stand at a farmer’s market. Auntie Anne’s was an immediate hit and can be found in shopping centers, airports, and train stations across the United States, Asia, Middle East, United Kingdom and Venezuela. With more than 100 units opening in 2016 alone, the Auntie Anne’s pretzel empire is only expected to grow in the next year.

Carl’s Jr.

Unit Count: 1,545

Initial Investment: $1,375,000-$1,952,000

What started as a hot dog cart in Los Angeles turned into a West and Southwest burger favorite. The company is known for its Six Dollar Burgers and has a constantly evolving menu with the most recent Moonshine Burger, pairing the south’s favorite alcohol with tasty meat. The menu is not the only thing evolving with the QSR concept. Carl’s Jr. recently expanded to Cambodia, which came soon after successful expansions in Australia, Japan and Kenya.

Arby’s

Unit Count: 3,323

Initial Investment: $272,700-$1,647,000

In 2016, Arby’s has reported a rise in its quarterly numbers for the 22nd consecutive quarter. This includes taking risks and trying out new flavors and concepts like the brand’s most recent product launch, the Venison Sandwich, which was an instant success in the Midwest, with some stores selling out in just 15 minutes. Arby’s has found its happy medium and has really stood out in the QSR marketplace as a staple for a good ol’ meat sandwich.

McDonald’s

Unit Count: 36,504

Initial Investment: $1,003,000-$2,228,000

McDonald’s has been and most likely always will be a staple in the QSR world. Whether it’s introducing ‘All Day Breakfast’ or maintaining its consistency throughout the years – the QSR brand continues to dominate the game with more than 35,000 stores in 119 different countries. “They will always be at the top because they have the real estate, market saturation and brand exposure,” said Oches. “They will continue to own the market, even if they have their ups and downs, they will continue to have it all together.”

Hardee’s

Unit Count: 2,146

Initial Investment: $1,426,500-$1,949,000

Over the years, Hardee’s has ramped up its breakfast offering to stay in the game among the competition with new breakfast items like the double sausage biscuit sandwich and blueberry biscuits were added to the menu. The QSR concept also offers charbroiled burgers, chicken options, desserts, and more. With other options on their menu, Hardee’s has made an effort to focus on their made from scratch biscuits to remain a staple in the breakfast world and keep customers coming through their doors for early morning nosh.

Wendy’s

Unit Count: 7,000

Initial Investment: $845,500-$1,600,000

A Frosty® and a French fries bring one place and one place only to mind – the much-acclaimed QSR concept named after Dave Thomas’ daughter, Wendy. The brand reported an extremely strong start to 2016, which continued throughout the year with the introduction of the “4 for $4” combo meal. According to an article from QSR Magazine, Wendy’s reportedly plans to open 100 additional locations in 2016.

Zaxby’s

Unit Count: 696

Initial Investment: $284,000-$664,300

When on the search for a variety of some of the best comfort food around, look no further than Zaxby’s. With delicious options like chicken fingers, wings, sandwiches and salads, customers on the search for a plate full of Zaxby’s deliciousness are limited to the southeastern part of the country. In 2016 alone the concept opened 74 new units, a number that is expected to grow in the next year.

Jack in the Box

Unit Count:  2,254

Initial Investment: $1,328,650-$2,427,250

After going 24 years without participating in Entrepreneur’s Franchise 500 rankings, Jack in the Box decided to get back in the game in 2015, and landed high on the list at No. 4. The brand took a unique approach with its franchisees, helping them get off the ground before letting them expand organically. A decade ago, 81 percent of the QSR concept was corporately owned, which has completely flipped to be the percentage of franchisee owned.

Bojangles’

Unit Count: 693

Initial Investment: $357,733-$636,580

To get the best biscuits, you head south. That’s a no brainer. To get the acclaimed best biscuits in the south – locals head to Bojangles’. The “made hot and fresh every 20 minutes” QSR chicken and buttermilk biscuit concept has become a staple in the south. The company is mainly spread across the southeast, with another location in Honduras, and has teased opening new locations in untapped markets.

Burger King

Unit Count: 12,000

Initial Investment: $316,100-$2,600,600

Burger King is known for several different things including burgers, fries and chicken sandwiches, but it wasn’t until last year that the brand added something else to the list – the hotdog – sparking a Wiener War between various fast food concepts. In 2016, the QSR chain was reported to have sales that rose 4.6 percent globally in the first quarter. Whether this is due to the new menu item or that over the past year around 50 percent of their stores have been revamped is unclear, but the brand is definitely not falling off the list of ones to watch anytime soon.

Long John Silver’s

Unit Count: 995

Initial Investment: $833,000-$1,434,600

Pulling up to a drive through, it’s easy to be dreaming of a juicy burger or salty French fries, but a fish taco? This is something that has made Long John Silver’s stand out in the QSR world. The seafood chain is a unique concept among its fellow Yum! Brands counterparts. As the largest quick service seafood chain with sales that skyrocket during Lent when there are fewer meatless fast food offerings, this concept is one that is expected to only grow in the coming year.

Taco Bell

Unit Count: 6,468

Initial Investment: $1,177,300-$2,620,600

This year, Taco Bell reported plans to add 9,000 new locations in the U.S., creating a whopping 100,000 jobs by the end of 2022. The growth is not just happening in the U.S. but also internationally, with a goal of 1,000 new international restaurants by 2022. These huge growth plans definitely make it one to watch in 2017. “Taco Bell is very innovative and they have really aced the irreverent attitude while not making them an annoyance,” said Oches. “Some companies come across too strong to make them appealing to younger crowds, but Taco Bell has remained consistent in being appealing to both younger and older crowds.”

Church’s Chicken

Unit Count: 1,595

Initial Investment: $413,300-$1,336,600

The global quick service restaurant chain that offers all kinds of delicious chicken announced a new Chief Executive Officer at the close of 2016. This is following a major multi-unit deal in Texas where 10 new restaurants will be opened including one in a major travel center along the I-35 corridor. With a new power team and franchisees signing on to expand their Church’s empires, the brand is definitely expected to continue its growth in 2017.

Del Taco

Unit Count: 544

Initial Investment: $960,700-$1,866,500

Since opening in 1964, the Del Taco team has tried to remain consistent – keep it simple and keep it authentic. This strategy has been proven successful with the taco QSR concept expecting an estimated $450 million in revenue in 2016 alone. With same store sales up 6.7 percent, the numbers are only expected to grow in the next year according to the brand’s CEO, Paul Murphy.

Five Guys

Unit Count: 389

Initial Investment: $152,600-$360,300

In 2016 Five Guys announced plans for international franchise expansion, making it one to watch in the next year. The much-loved QSR concept is focusing on entering the Australia, Japan and South Korea markets and nearly quadrupling their international footprint. This is not to say that domestically they are slowing down. The concept reportedly opens around 100 units annually, making their success impressive both nationally and internationally.

Culver’s

Unit Count: 574

Initial Investment: $1,845,000-$4,155,000

The Midwest-based QSR concept has focused on one thing that has allowed them to grow in the marketplace: the farmer. While many other QSR concepts choose cheaper prices over more natural options, Culver’s has always put the farmer first. For a brand that continuously tries to improve the quality of their food at a time when American’s are more health conscious than ever, they are definitely one to watch in 2017.

Popeye’s

Unit Count: 1,945

Initial Investment: $92,300-$442,100

The famous chicken QSR concept has definitely seen its ebbs and flows. Same-stores sales and average unit volume reportedly declined, and then the Great Recession hit. In 2008, the brand’s founder passed away and the company found its purpose again. According to a QSR Magazine article, in the past eight years, Popeyes reported nearly $700 million system wide sales for the year, with same-store sales up 5.7 percent. The brand broke its own record with 219 restaurants opening in 2016. Now that Popeye’s has found its motivation, it is definitely poised to build off this momentum in 2017.

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