What's driving—and deterring—growth

Here are the trends that impacted sales in 2018, as well as the chains that saw the largest sales increases and declines.
Photograph by Jason Little

top 500

Rent is high. Labor is expensive and hard to come by. Competition for traffic is increasing. And as a result, many operators took the “focus on what you’ve got” approach in 2018, developing modest unit growth but really relying on improving results at existing locations—and often closing or moving those that underperform. Operators are turning to different tactics, investing in technology, deploying new marketing, improving menu quality and more in an effort to win traffic and boost sales. It’s helped chains in the Top 500 grow sales 3.3%, and will continue to help them move in a positive direction this year.

Here are the trends that impacted sales in 2018, as well as the chains that saw the largest sales increases and declines.


Nearly half of the top 100 chains have said they are testing or have committed to developing delivery, and many have moved beyond that initial phase to take a closer look at understanding the challenges and economics of the off-premise market. 

National brand relevance

Casual-dining chains are struggling to stay relevant, especially with millennials and Gen Z customers less likely to visit those concepts. While Joe Pawlak of Technomic predicts that there will be some reprieve for the segment, “They will need to reinvent themselves. They will need to look at technology,” he says. 

Beyond the dayparts

Four out of 5 consumers say they snack between meals once a day, and their definition of a snack expands beyond a granola bar or bag of chips. Operators are adjusting to capture between-meal dollars with options such as shareable happy hour snacks and protein-rich, on-the-go boxes.

Restaurants get smarter

To attract consumers who want to feel a personal connection to the restaurants they frequent, marketing continues to shift from broad, national campaigns to hyperpersonalized, targeted efforts. Operators are collecting customer data through apps, geotracking and more to better understand their audience.

The cost of a new look

The trend of reducing kitchen floor space to allow more room for revenue-generating tables and seats has been flipped on its head: Restaurants are adding space for delivery drivers to wait and for guests to pick up online orders. But more production is needed to meet the demand for off-premise orders, which now account for 63% of total industry transactions, according to the National Restaurant Association. This shift can change the cost-to-sales ratio of a restaurant. 

Top 10 Sales Increases (Top 250 chains)

Chain name2018 Sales Change %2018 US Sales ($000,000)2018 AUV ($000)Rank
Metro Diner71.2%$125.5$2,433246
MOD Pizza44.8%397.71,340*105
First Watch31.9%4131,535*100
Shake Shack28.0%459.34,39090
Lazy Dog Restaurant26.8%175.96,395190
Habit Burger Grill23.1%436.61,87394
Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers22.5%1,183.53,26446
True Food Kitchen22.3%1677,100203
Blaze Pizza20.3%326.61,350*125
Tropical Smoothie20.3%472.670088

Top 10 Sales Increases (Next 250 chains)

Chain Name2018 Sales Change %2018 US Sales ($000,000)2018 AUV ($000)Rank
CoreLife Eatery133.8%$52.6$1,500479
110 Grill77.3%493,265499
Cava Grill67.9%85.3*1,445*331
Halal Guys63.7%58.6*955445
Walk-On's Bistro56.6%102.84,980294
Poke Bar47.5%53.7*910471
Chicken Salad Chick43.8%109.91,153278
Nekter Juice Bar42.9%70.3*660375
Vitality Bowls42.4%50.4*900493
Mission BBQ40.0%113.1*1,740268

Largest Sales Declines (Top 250 chains)

Chain Name2018 Sales Change %2018 US Sales ($000,000)2018 AUV ($000)Rank
Joe's Crab Shack-34.5%$180*$3,100*186
Old Country Buffet/HomeTown Buffet-15.0%175.5*2,600*191
McCormick & Schmick's-13.6%179.7*4,040*187

Largest Sales Declines (Next 250 chains)

Chain Name2018 Sales Change %2018 US Sales ($000,000)2018 AUV ($000)Rank
Tilted Kilt Pub & Grill-37.8%$89*$2,225323
Max & Emma's-30.9%60.1*2,125434
The Egg & I Breakfast & Lunch-29.2%62.1*1,090421
Papa Gino's Pizza-21.1%98.5*850304

Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report; *estimate

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