I was honored to announce the winners of the Fast Casual Top 100 Movers & Shakers this week at the FastCasual.com awards gala in Chicago, where most of the winning brands were represented by CEOs or other C-level executives. The competition has been steep ever since we published our first edition eight years ago, but this year was more difficult than ever — fast casuals continue to demand even more attention from not only consumers but also from the rest of the restaurant industry and even mainstream media. Pizza concepts played a big part in the ranking this year, with the winner — Fazoli's — seving pizza. Three other pizza concepts, including Blaze Pizza, Top That! Pizza and Pie Five made the list. Additionally, "pizza as a fast casual" was named No. 8 on our Top 10 list of industry trends.
The why and the how behind the Top 100
Of the $660 billion Americans are spending each year eating out, fast casuals account for only $31 billion, not even 5 percent. They are, however, driving growth in the industry, increasing sales 13.2 percent in sales in 2012, compared to an industry average of 5.1 percent, according to Technomic. That growth can be attributed to myriad new concepts popping up all over the world, which means competition for the Top 100 is just going to get tougher. That said, this year's No. 1 brand — Fazoli's — is not new to the restaurant market but is new to the fast casual sector.
Fazoli's, known chiefly as a QSR when it opened in the late 1980s, has transformed itself into a fast casual leader by upgrading not only the quality of food but also the ambience and reputation of the brand. Under the leadership of CEO Carl Howard, Fazoli's transformation has led to sales hitting $226 million in 2012, a 5.1-percent year-over-year increase. Both company and franchise restaurants posted 28 consecutive months of same-store sales growth (through November 2012). That's the longest sustained year-over-year sales gain in the company's 24-year history. The brand, which operates 216 units in 26 states, has been "sales positive" for 30 out of the last 31 months and eight consecutive quarters, Howard said.
"Wow, I'm so humbled by this, but it's also a true testament that serving fresh food at a fair price and focusing on customer service will lead to success," said Howard during his acceptance speech at the gala. Howard received a standing ovation from the other gala attendees, which included Don Fox, CEO of Firehouse Subs; Bryan Lockwood, CEO of Freebirds World Burrito and parent company Tavistock; and Frank Paci, CEO of McAlister's Deli.
Our ranking process
Judges determined the top 50 brands based on industry nominations from readers and subsequent debate on the significance of the nominees to the segment. (We received more than 300 nominations this year.) Criteria included innovation, growth, social responsibility and overall contribution to the fast casual segment. In addition, the judges acknowledged the 20 industry executives who have most contributed to the evolution and health of fast casual, the most influential menu innovations, and the most significant food and technology trends.
Although we do take sales figures into great consideration, these rankings are not 100-percent objective; if that were the case, we'd simply look at year-over-year sales and rank the top 50 according to that. These awards are more than just numbers; they also say something about a brand's reputation with consumers and within the industry. I'm proud to introduce to you the 2013 Top 100 Movers & Shakers, and I can't wait to see how the industry grows over the next year.
Cherryh Butler has been a reporter and editor for nearly 15 years, writing on a variety of topics, ranging from the restaurant industry to business and health and fitness news. Before joining Networld Media Group as managing editor of Food/Retail Publications, she was content specialist at Barkley ad agency in Kansas City and has served as editor for several publications. She's also written for several daily newspapers, magazines and websites, including Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine.