Segments on the rise: Chains fueling growth

While fast casual’s distinction as the dominant player in the industry goes unchallenged, what’s driving its growth is shifting. That’s the finding of preliminary data by researcher Technomic, which gave Restaurant Business a sneak peek at its annual Top 500 report. The figures paint a big-picture view of the top-performing restaurant chains by sales in 2015.

“The quality of food in fast casual really has evolved,” says Nick Reader, CEO of chicken chain PDQ. And it’s those “better” fast-casual chains that are flourishing. It started with burgers, particularly the Habit Burgers and Shake Shacks of the world, says Reader. Then came customizable pizza, still on top. Now, see which other segments are bursting forward as the ones to watch.

Build-your-own pizza is booming

blaze pizza assembly line

The customizable pizza trend still is leading when it comes to fast-casual growth. The difference from a year ago: These chains are playing with the big boys now. Just last year, three fast-casual pizza chains cracked the Top 10 in Restaurant Business’ Future 50—a ranking of emerging concepts with sales between $25 million and $50 million. Now, all three exceed that sales parameter. One reason, says Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, is that pizza spots are able to compete with other fast casuals at the lunchtime daypart and continue to do well during dinner hours—something some salad and Mediterranean concepts struggle with. Today, DIY pizza concepts are the darlings. As the category matures, Tristano predicts some chains will fall out while others emerge as true leaders—the proverbial Five Guys of pizza. 

Blaze Pizza

2015 sales: $100.6M
Growth: 204.8%
Units: 104
Growth: 108%

This marks the first year the five-year-old chain, brainchild of Wetzel’s Pretzels’ founders, breaks into the ranks of the Top 500 chains. President and COO Jim Mizes attributes its fast growth to three factors: an on-trend concept, simple execution and strong franchisees. “It’s been our thought from the beginning. The only way to become a national brand is to have experienced, financially sound franchise partners,” he says. “We teach them about Blaze; we don’t need to teach them how to run a restaurant or make money.” In the past year, Blaze has won points with consumers for moves such as adding vegan cheese to its menu and signing up with a third-party delivery service. NBA star LeBron James even said he’s ending his endorsement deal with McDonald’s to promote Blaze. 

Fun fact: While fast casuals may be driving the growth in the pizza world, emerging QSRs aren’t obsolete. Marco’s Pizza and Jet’s Pizza both ranked among the 100 fastest-growing chains within the Top 500, with Toppers Pizza not far behind.

More top growth leaders

MOD Pizza
Sales growth: 181.5%
Unit growth: 200%

Pieology
Sales growth: 67.3%
Unit growth: 85.7%

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