Chains that jumped onto the Top 500 list represent a wide swath of the industry. But most have one commonality: a marketing message and brand ethos pointed at today’s diners. This year, that comes in the form of DIY pizza places, better-for-you fast casuals or an unpretentious, approachable vibe wrapped in a full-service experience.
Rank: 279 | Sales: $100.6M | Units: 104
The build-your-own chain has been expanding more than unit counts, adding vegan cheese to its menu as well as an ordering and loyalty app. It’s attracted big investors, too: NBA star LeBron James didn’t renew his McDonald’s deal so he could be Blaze’s spokesman.
Grimaldi’s Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria
Rank: 310 | Sales: $86.9M | Units: 43
Grimaldi’s pushed into several new markets in 2015. The New York-style pizza chain is very active on social media, scoring big with its followers for posting food porn as well as touting its promotions.
Rank: 321 | Sales: $82.5M | Units: 17
Brazilian steakhouse Rodizio Grill opened a handful of new units in 2015 and plans to continue on that growth path this year. It also launched its first annual nationwide summer promotion in 2015, meshing American barbecue with its traditional Brazilian fare.
Rank: 374 | Sales: $67.6M | Units: 98
The healthful chain considers itself a threat to fast food. In fact, CEO Matthew Corrin penned an open letter proposing mini Freshii units inside McDonald’s as a turnaround plan for the giant. It then started putting them in Target stores. Freshii also launched an incubator in a Chicago tech hub.
Rank: 385 | Sales: $64.8M | Units: 92
MOD has been on the fast track to expansion, opening in several new markets and launching some nontraditional airport sites. To keep up, the chain added new VP roles on the exec team. It’s keeping the menu on-trend, too, debuting seasonal pizzas and switching to non-GMO pizza dough.
Rank: 416 | Sales: $60M | Units: 115
Cupcakes aren’t dead just yet. But to stay alive, the scratch-made cupcake chain changed its name from Smallcakes A Cupcakery to Cupcakery and Creamery to position itself as a dual threat of both baked goods and frozen desserts. The expanded menu has helped the chain break out of its hyperfocused position.
Fig & Olive
Rank: 431 | Sales: $57.2M | Units: 8
Known for kicking off the meal with a sample of olive oils, the Mediterranean-inspired concept changes its menu seasonally. To promote its cuisine, the upscale chain launched a cookbook in November and held several promotional events across the country. Because of its chic, urban vibe and big-city locales, it also markets itself as a go-to spot for parties and events.
The Boiling Crab
Rank: 436 | Sales: $56.6M | Units: 16
Breaking from the sluggish seafood chain mentality, The Boiling Crab is so laid back that it doesn’t have plates or silverware. It’s all about the carefree experience—something big among millennials. The simple menu lists seafood by the pound with a choice of seasoning, adding in a little customization. Food is served in bags and dumped on paper-topped tables for diners to eat with their hands.
Oregano’s Pizza Bistro
Rank: 441 | Sales: $55.8M | Units: 16
Marketing itself as the neighborhood Italian spot, Oregano’s doesn’t just stick to one type of pizza—it offers a wide variety that includes Chicago-style, stuffed, thin crust and pan. A big news item for the over 20-year-old chain in 2015: a new flavor of its signature cookie pizza dessert. And it also has continued to push itself as a catering and private party hub.
Rank: 458 | Sales: $52M | Units: 39
The better-for-you chain aimed at millennials raised $35 million in investments in 2015. It promotes itself as a lifestyle brand, focusing on sustainability, transparent sourcing and relationships with farmers. To further its more-than-food stance, it sells branded apparel and runs a Sweetlife music festival. It also added a new prototype with an open kitchen and bleacher seating.