True or false: In our lifetimes a restaurant brand will surpass the size of restaurant industry titan McDonald’s?

If you answered this question with 100-percent certainty, frankly, you haven’t been paying attention.

While McDonald’s massive $35 billion in U.S. systemwide sales is nearly three times that of its closest competitor, today’s business environment and the consumer dynamics that drive it leave almost nothing sacred. Just look at Howard Johnson or Royal Castle — each was once an industry leader and is now only a memory.

Disrupters are out there. They are launching brands and making big plans. We would be foolish to ignore them.

This issue marks the 40th year the editorial team at Nation’s Restaurant News has completed the massive undertaking of quantifying, qualifying and analyzing the largest foodservice brands in the United States. It is the annual Top 100.

This massive data set isn’t just a ranking of the largest restaurant chains and the dollars they collect. It’s a look at what strategies are driving success, especially among the brands of tomorrow, like first-time qualifier Firehouse Subs. It’s a cheat sheet for any restaurant looking to target a competitor and steal market share, like Chick-fil-A, which for the first time in Top 100 history surpassed KFC. And it’s a review of missteps that have led to contraction, like at Quiznos Sub, which is admittedly trying to reverse years of mismanagement with new leadership and franchisee support.

There is a theory that the human brain needs to break free of our everyday routines to generate new and powerful ideas. It’s why companies hold executive retreats or franchisors hold franchisee conventions far from headquarters. The removal of repetitive thinking and the entry into new environments can lead to innovation.

We hope this edition of the Top 100 provides our readers with that new setting for dynamic thinking. We’ve redesigned every page in this section and re-evaluated the data we highlight — from the always-important U.S. systemwide sales and unit counts to the now-more-important-than-ever market share and per-unit information. We split the once all-encompassing limited-service Sandwich segment, which included nearly any brand with portable menu items, to three groupings — LSR/Burger, LSR/Sandwich and LSR/Mexican — to provide improved peer-to-peer analysis. We’ve aired out the display of data for easier reading and provided more segment-to-segment analysis than in the past.

While the glossy magazine stands as a must-have issue, just as important to our project is new Top 100 data tables at NRN.com. These tables can sort data by size, segment, rank or growth rate — allowing you to manipulate data in ways you deem most important. It took 40 years, but Top 100 is now officially digital.

The Top 100, followed by its companion Second 100 in July and a new report on emerging brands, The Next 20, in August, together comprise the biggest effort we undertake each year. NRN’s Alan J. Liddle serves as the heart and soul of this project, painstakingly collecting, estimating, confirming and building every number in the database of more than 10,000 cells. A few years ago, I had the privilege of working with him closely on this project in his home base of Salinas, Calif., and there I saw firsthand Al’s total dedication — and awe-inspiring attention to detail — that guides the quality of this project.

In its 40 years, the sales generated by the Top 100 qualifying chains have grown to represent nearly 34 percent of the entire $631.8 billion in U.S. foodservice sales. This is clearly where the action is. This is the Top 100.

Contact Sarah E. Lockyer at sarah.lockyer@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @slockyerNRN