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2017 Top 100: Regional, specialty chains dominate Limited Service

Growth leader Jersey Mike’s Subs shares keys to success

This is part of the Nation’s Restaurant News annual Top 100 report, a proprietary ranking of the foodservice industry’s largest restaurant chains and parent companies.

Specialty chains and regional favorites dominated growth in the Limited-Service segment in the Latest Year.  

That included chains with culinary specialties, like Panda Express, which rose from No. 29 to No. 26 among all Top 100 chains, in terms of annual domestic sales, on a 13.8-percent sales increase in the Latest Year, and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, a newcomer to the Top 100 as a result of 10.3-percent sales growth. 

Regional favorites were especially dominant among Limited-Service Burger chains, and included Whataburger, based in San Antonio, which saw 9-percent sales growth in the Latest Year; Culver’s, based in Prairie du Sac, Wis., whose sales rose 8.8 percent; and Checkers, based in Tampa, Fla., with sales rising 8.3 percent.

By comparison, the three biggest burger chains saw meager growth. No. 1 McDonald’s, still in turnaround mode after a couple of challenging years, saw sales growth of 1.5 percent in the Latest Year. Burger King and Wendy’s posted 2-percent and 0.6-percent sales increases, respectively. As a result, Burger King slipped from being the fourth-largest Top 100 chain to the fifth, and Wendy’s slipped from fifth place to sixth.  

Taco Bell, with 6.1-percent growth, leapt from sixth place to fourth.  

However, the biggest three chains still generated domestic sales of $54.8 billion in the Latest Year, an increase of more than $780 million from the Preceding Year. 

The fastest-growing Limited-Service chain in the Latest Year was Jersey Mike’s Subs, which saw sales increase 22.2 percent, catapulting it from the 71st spot to 60th. The chain opened a net 141 new restaurants in the Latest Year, and Estimated Sales Per Unit rose 4.2 percent. 

Jersey Mike’s president Hoyt Jones attributed the chain’s success to prioritizing operational excellence. 

“We really focused on training in the stores,” Jones said. “We’ve done literally hundreds and hundreds of training sessions around the country last year.”

Jersey Mike’s also increased spending on national television advertising, particularly around professional and college sports, reinforced by digital advertising on platforms such as ESPN Highlights. 

Jones said national TV, radio and digital advertising reinforce each other with Jersey Mike’s customers, adding to the chain’s overall presence in their psyches.

“I don’t think you can do one without the other,” he said. 

Jersey Mike’s also rolled out a new online ordering platform and app, which let customers skip the line. Customers can pre-pay, creating efficiency for guests and franchisees, Jones said. 

“It’s been positively received by both our operators and our customers,” he said.

Jersey Mike’s information technology team developed the software for the platform in-house. 

“[CEO] Peter [Cancro] was very forward-thinking,” Jones said. “About 10 years ago, we began writing our own software for our proprietary POS system.” 

Since then, Jersey Mike’s IT team has fine-tuned the software, developed ordering software and maintained the chain’s loyalty program.

“There’s quite a few people working on it on a daily basis, keeping it relevant,” Jones said.

Panda Express also attributed its success to a commitment to ambience, food and service.

“Elevating our food and guest experience remains at the heart of what we do,” said Thien Ho, director of corporate communications at Panda Express. 

New menu items, such as Pacific Chili Shrimp and General Tso’s Chicken, helped generate news for the chain, as did the introduction of the “chork,” a fork-chopstick hybrid that became a viral sensation. Ho described the utensil as “a symbol of American Chinese identity,” reinforcing Panda Express’ branding.  

“Overall, we believe that all our efforts resonated with loyal and new guests who appreciate Panda as an ambassador of American Chinese culture and food,” Ho said.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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