7 Fast-Food Chains That Are On a Quiet Decline
Fast food is, in some ways, evolving more quickly than ever. The pandemic forced the industry's hand, leading many power players to turn to new technology, ghost kitchens, and menu updates that may have taken years to get to otherwise. By and large, nimble fast-food joints were able to find success despite the odds being stacked against them.
On the other hand, there are those who had a harder time keeping up with this rapid change of landscape. As their counterparts enjoy success, the former dynamos on this list are struggling to stay afloat. We did a deep dive and rounded up seven fast-food brands that seem to be on a quiet decline from their once-leading positions.
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Krystal was straining for a while. Founded in 1932, the burger joint filed for bankruptcy in their 65th year of business, back in 1997. They were bought out and managed to get by until, in an effort to remedy declining sales in 2018, they attempted a massive rebrand. Their new slogan "Live a little" and an emphasis on thin, small burgers did not fly with consumers. By January 2020, they filed for bankruptcy a second time.
Krystal was acquired by an investment group during the summer of 2020, and currently operates some 300 nationwide locations. While the chain recently announced some movement in a positive direction, like onboarding its first new franchisee in 15 years, this might not be enough to remain competitive in the cutthroat burger space.
Sandwich chain Potbelly has a few issues—the least of which being that its name doesn't exactly match society's current, more health-conscious tone.
Although the brand itself "expects positive cash flow" during the remainder of this year, and isn't raising their prices perhaps in an effort to attain that very cash flow, there isn't a ton of promising evidence in support of that expectation. The chain entered 2021 with 28 fewer stores and its "chronic unprofitability" hadn't improved by the summer.
However, when it comes to failing sandwich chains, Potbelly is just the beginning of the story.
Blimpie is the oldest sub sandwich chain, and at one point had 2,000 locations. Unfortunately, that success did not last. Within the first decade of the new millennium the beloved shop closed over half of its stores, and by 2011, sales had declined by 60%. The once-booming Blimpie is now down to only 304 domestic locations, making it the fifth-largest sandwich shop in the game (after Subway, Quiznos, Jimmy Johns, and Jersey Mike's).
But don't be fooled—while other chains might be ahead of Blimpie in the sandwich space, they're facing their own steady decline.
Subway, perhaps the strongest brand in the sub arena, is a prime example of the tough spot the fast-food sandwich industry is in. Its sales have decreased by $4 billion since 2013, and during that same span of time, it went from owning 41% of the top 500 sandwich market to owning 28%. The loss of domination is staggering, and industry insiders say the chain's downfall came from prioritizing unit growth over unit volumes. Put simply: Subway over-multiplied, and instead of innovating the actual product, opened too many unprofitable stores.
The brand has made an effort to rejuvenate sales, unveiling its "largest menu update in history" this summer. And while the company reported record sales in the following weeks, many are skeptical as to whether the strategy can bring long-term success and undo all the issues currently plaguing America's largest sandwich chain.
Quiznos has had what might be the most talked-about decline in the fast-food space, but their issues are not dissimilar to that of their also-falling sandwich competitors.
As we reported this summer, the grinder destination has only 255 domestic locations and over 300 international ones—down from 5,000 back in 2007. Like Subway, the core of the brand's issues was tied to mismanagement of franchising. Operators openly complained about the way the brand was treating them, citing over-priced ingredients as just the start of their list of woes.
The brand recently turned to ghost kitchens in an effort to turn the ship around, but it remains to be seen if that strategy is effective.
Qdoba, which has already been sold once, may be looking at another sale. But the chain seems to be taking steps to avoid the same fate as the other misfortunate brands on this list. Back in May 2020, they hired power player Shawn Caric as VP of franchise development. Caric had previously served as director of development for the Midwest region at Dunkin' Brands, and has already landed Qdoba a spot on the 17 best restaurants to franchise with.
Whatever struggles the brand may be having, we're optimistic it's nothing a queso candle can't fix.
Taco Cabana was recently sold for $85 million, and its ownership change may tie back to an overall lack of faith in the future of Tex-Mex. Fiesta, the chain's former owner, split into two separate businesses in 2016: Taco Cabana and Pollo Tropical. It also announced plans to rename itself after the latter of the two businesses—an unsettling vote of unconfidence for Taco Cabana.
Taco Cabana's sales were already declining before 2020, and the pandemic did the brand no favors. In 2020 their revenues were down 20%. When Fiesta sold the company and its 142 locations, they did so with an announcement that they planned to use their profit to accelerate Pollo Tropical, their Caribbean-inspired food chain.
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