Rising Fast Casual Brands Shaking Up the Foodable Top 25

If the restaurant and hospitality industry were the box office, then the fast casual segment would be the Shirley Temple of foodservice. And instead of tap dancing, singing, and acting its way into the hearts of millions of consumers, fast casual’s top-performing factors would be elevated flavor profiles, higher-quality ingredients, and efficient service. (You might see diners tap dancing and singing in joy, though.)

From the rise of the better-burger concept and craft pizza, to now explorations in the artisan chicken sector, fast casual has changed the way America eats  — with the numbers to prove it. Known as the fastest-growing segment in the restaurant industry, the Washington Post reported a 600 percent growth from 1999 to 2014, which was more than 10 times the growth seen in the once-dominating fast food sector in the same time period. And according to Forbes, even during the recession in 2008, fast casual saw a rise in sales within the Millennial demographic.

Fast casual is a space for businesses to thrive, for new, unique visions to incubate, and is a hotbed of success waiting to happen. Unsurprisingly, there have been a flood of concepts expanding into the industry, creating a challenging arena to stand out as a fast casual champion. As more consumers are embracing this segment and look toward its future, how do operators, companies, and restaurateurs set themselves apart from the rest?

Foodable’s Fast Casual Top 100 Social Brands 2016 Report highlights these up-and-coming fast casual superstars and is the ultimate view on how fast casual brands are perceived by consumers in the digital landscape. To be in the Top 100, especially when competing against almost 2,000 other fast casual brands, is a huge honor — but to be in the elite Top 25? Now, that’s impressive.

Below, we introduce the latest fast casual champions to enter the Top 25 and break down what makes consumers crave them.

How It Works

Long story short: This ranking is not editorially selected, but instead, based on core social consumer metrics, reflecting the true, unfiltered opinion of the people enjoying our food. 

The data that determines the Fast Casual Top 100 Social Brands ranking is provided in partnership with DigitalCoCo, LLC and the industry’s leading social data analysis platform, the Restaurant Social Media Index. Foodable Labs is the culmination of this collaboration, analyzing more than 167K restaurant and hospitality brands daily, and over 220MM global restaurant consumers engaged in social, across more than 500,000 foodservice locations. Want to make sure your restaurant is included in the index? Click here!

Breaking Down these Fast Casual Superstars

No. 12  Modern Market

Since its start in 2009, Colorado-based Modern Market had one mission: “To serve amazing, healthy food to as many people as possible.” How? By choosing whole ingredients from ranchers and suppliers to make farm-to-table the new normal. Not only do they focus on the health and happiness of their consumers, but also that of their employees, as one of their core values is to build people, not restaurants, and the Earth itself by encouraging sustainable practices.

Modern Market made online ordering easier, and with it, this summer brought playful and fresh flavors to the forefront, offering creations like the Blueberry Pesto Sandwich and Fresno Mint Salad — and their 25 percent off discount offer on their online orders didn’t hurt, either.

“We are figuring out how to scale a 3-day part, broad menu of scratch-made food that is sustainably sourced. We deliver this for under 10 bucks in about six minutes,” Modern Market Co-Founder and CEO Anthony Pigliacampo said.

But aside from their good eats making consumers feel good, what else attracts consumers to this brand?

If not their feel-good humor during the PokémonGO hype or their commitment to simplicity by forging on with the #RealFoodMovement and not advocating ingredients you can’t pronounce, it certainly has to be their transparency and connection to their consumers. In this blog post, their audience got a taste of the behind-the-scenes life at corporate, by introducing their Chief People Person, Laurie Nusbaum. And in general, whether it is new store announcements, employee features, or showcasing their menu items, Modern Market is active on social media and digital marketing, allowing guests to connect with them in and outside of their restaurants.

What other factors does Modern Market believe played a part in their accomplishments this year?

“[We are] continuing to evolve each restaurant we build based on learnings from the previous ones. Every restaurant gets better and allows us to continue to serve higher-quality food faster, and at lower prices,” Pigliacampo said.

No. 13  Veggie Grill

Just because Veggie Grill is a vegetarian fast casual restaurant doesn’t mean its story has no meat to it. Co-founder and “accidental vegetarian” T.K. Pillian, who helped develop a web commerce firm in 1996 after studying engineering at MIT graduating from the UCLA business school, was reading about the poor state of health and wellness in the United States and set out to discover dining-out alternatives.

He was far from vegetarian, but found plant-based foods satisfyingly healthy. Although he lost 20 pounds and dropped his cholesterol levels from switching his diet, he knew there was another challenge: convincing non-vegetarians to step foot into a vegetarian restaurant without forcefully dragging them in. He and co-founder Kevin Boylan were determined to package healthy food options in fun, flavorful ways. That’s when Veggie Grill was born and fast casual turned a new leaf.

“Veggie Grill is the largest vegetarian fast casual chain in the United States. Veggie Grill renders the impossible possible. We create innovative, craveable, and convenient veggie-centric food. We see every season as an opportunity to celebrate the vegetable, the fruit, the grain, and the nut,” CEO Steve Heeley said.

“We try and deliver on our brand promise to our guests each and every day. We work very hard on developing...veggie-centric food to drive trial and guest loyalty,” he continued. “There is a trend of people who are trying to move vegetables to the center of their plates. ...This is not a trend for us. We have been focused on celebrating the vegetable since the first day we opened our doors.”

There are other reasons for consumers to celebrate, too. Along with the brand’s loyalty app program and pre-order and $1 delivery services that make dining more rewarding and efficient, Veggie Grill offers fundraising opportunities for schools and nonprofit organizations, too. Pair that with their quirky, punny humor on social media (Can we appreciate this “Mean Girls” reference?) and the celebrity love this brand receives, it’s no wonder Veggie Grill is one of the Top 25 Fast Casual Social Brands.    

No. 17 The Habit Burger Grill

It's not a #Thursday night without a side of bacon. #MakeItAHabit 🍔 | 📷: @kalino57 #burger #yum #dinner #eeeeeats

A photo posted by The Habit Burger Grill (@habitburgergrill) on

The Habit Burger Grill works its (daily-baked) buns off. So much so that in 2014, it was named the best-tasting burger in a Consumer Reports survey. But there’s more bite to this brand than its hot, juicy Charburger with fresh ground beef grilled over an open flame.

From its #MakeItAHabit activity on Twitter and Instagram to free giveaways on its Snapchat account, The Habit Burger Grill is all about integrated storytelling across all platforms. This can be seen even on the brand’s humorous and honest YouTube page, where consumers can get to know their team, see highlights on menu items, and “get all up in their grill” of their Habit Burger Truck, available for on-the-go catering for your next event.

If that’s not enough, their CharClub loyalty program keeps people coming back for more with exclusive news, offers, and promotions. Still not impressed? The Habit Burger Grill also gives back to the community. Whether it is donating to No Kid Hungry in an effort to combat childhood hunger or raising thousands of dollars to help veterans transition back into civilian life, The Habit Burger Grill is one fast casual with service that extends past their menu.


No. 23 Twisted Root Burger Co.

Don’t get it twisted. Despite being a successful fast casual chain, with founders Jason Boso and Quincy Hart even appearing on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” hosted by Guy Fieri, Twisted Root Burger Co. still sticks to its hands-on, full-of-personality roots. And along with classic burgers and mouthwatering options like a comanche buffalo burger or housemade veggie burger with chickpea, black beans, brown rice, and quinoa for those hungry for something a little lighter, there is something on the menu for everyone to enjoy — even if consumers are gluten-sensitive.

Still, while some menu items may cut out wheat, there is no cutting out humor for Twisted Root Burger Co. Chef Jason Boso’s tongue-in-cheek thank you message is branded across the website: “Thank you for your patronage. Without your excellent taste in burgers, you wouldn’t have excellent taste in burgers.”

And in a recent hiring announcement for managers, Twisted Root Burger Co. posted a video, stating “Dance moves are not a must, but are definitely encouraged.” With jokes as good as their dishes, consumers get an all-around experience with this fast casual. (Really, their level of in-store and online engagement with guests is admirable. Here, they challenged a diner to finish a four-patty burger — beef, turkey, buffalo and camel — for a free milkshake.)

This relatable, fun approach to its marketing is selling well for this brand. But that’s not the only way their resonate with the hearts of consumers. In light of the tragic natural disaster flooding Louisiana, resulting in almost 7 trillion gallons of rain and 60,000 damaged homes in one week, Twisted Root Burger Co. urged diners to bring in nonperishable food, pet food, clothing, toiletries, and other supplies to its locations in order to hand-deliver these donations to local shelters.

No. 24 Freshii  

This fresh-forward fast casual aiming to provide nutritious and affordable options is no stranger to Foodable. (Check out our Leadership Series Q&A with CEO and Founder Matthew Corrin.) And with 300 locations across more than 85 cities worldwide and now even being open in select Target locations, it’s no surprise that Freshii won Canada’s 2013 Top Franchise of the Year Award.

What about this brand offers a fresh perspective for consumers? Aside from its commitment to green by only using eco-friendly, natural cleaning products, biodegradable or recyclable packaging, energy-efficient equipment, and only online and mobile ordering and paperless marketing, its headquarters team is 98 percent Millennial — fitting, considering that the consumer demographic dominating the fast casual segment and driving it forward is Millennial. This is a team of people giving its audience exactly what it wants because they know exactly what they want.  

And like the bold, progressive, and health-conscious characteristics Millennials are known for, young entrepreneur Corrin did not back down from a challenge when he issued an open letter to McDonald’s. He wrote:

“The reality is that McDonald’s is stagnating and your growth days are over. You are struggling with declining same-store sales, offering franchises inadequate leadership and fumbling through your menu rather than adding healthier options.

But this apparent conflict – fast food vs. fresh food – is a false dichotomy. As an industry, and as a nation, we can have both.

Today, I issue a challenge to McDonald’s: Take a risk, be agile and step into the future. Learn how the fresh revolution will improve American lives and your own bottom line. ...You’ll be ‘loving it’, and America’s waistline, and your bottom line, will both be the winners.”

This wasn’t Freshii’s only stint in headlines. Corrin also appeared as one of the youngest CEOs on hit TV series “Undercover Boss” and the brand launched Fresh Startups, a technology incubator that invests in young technology companies with a mission to help people live longer and healthier lives.

Eco-friendly, health-conscious, edgy, and tech-savvy? Freshii is the perfect flame for the Millennial moths drawn to fast casual.

No. 25 Penn Station Subs

Last, but most definitely not least, in the Top 25 Fast Casual Social Brands ranking is Penn Station Subs. Since its first opening in 1985, with an original menu of only four sandwiches, this sub-centric fast casual has grilled, fried, and baked their way to consumer-tastebud approval.

Even the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Ohio State committed offensive lineman Josh Myers is a fan.

“I am hands-down their best customer at Penn Station. People at the grill literally look at me and say, ‘One or two [subs]?’” he told WCPO Cincinnati.

With enough flavor to feed a football player, what else makes this emerging fast casual superstar so special? Well, for one, their goal is to make their customers feel special. And they’ve got the email offers to prove it. Guests are also able to download their latest mobile app program and get a free six-inch sub once they sign up. From there, with every purchase and scan of their phone at their register, they earn loyalty points and have a laundry list of awards and perks awaiting them.

Penn Station Subs has 300 locations across 15 states, and they’re only growing from here on out. Where will we see this brand next year?

With that, say congratulations to these fast casual brands who have broke into the Top 25. But not so fast (casual)! While that last pun was a stretch, this message is no joke: Are you interested in learning more about the Top 100 Fast Casual Social Brands? Do you want to see where you rank against your competitors? Download the report and discover the newest menu trends, the rise of craft soda, digital and marketing trends, other brand rankings, and more!