Compared with the prior year, 2021 brought promising results to the restaurant sector. While there are examples aplenty of brands overcoming the odds and welcoming guests back into their dining rooms, nothing validates these anecdotes quite like hard numbers. By and large the publicly traded restaurants that follow performed admirably on Wall Street this past year and incoming data for the 2022 fiscal year suggests we can expect the momentum to keep going strong.
Methodology: The sales and unit count data for the FSR 50 (found in the above linked chart) was collected and calculated using public filings with the Security and Exchange Commission. All brands were contacted to confirm numbers, although not all replied. The data reflects U.S. locations only and encompasses both corporate-owned and franchised units. All chain in this list are publicly held.
1 With impressive year-over-year sales growth, the neighborhood grill and bar is embracing innovation in a bid to stay relevant to the ever-evolving, post-COVID consumer—and it seems to be working. Per Applebee’s president John Cywinski, the company outperformed the casual-dining category average in 51 out of 52 weeks in 2021. That same year, it launched virtual brand, Cosmic Wings, which after some early supply chain challenges, is expanding its third-party delivery presence. The brand is also dipping its toes into ghost kitchens (two in Philadelphia and a third in Miami), smaller store footprints, and a drive-thru window to expedite to-go orders.
These strategies may soon prove especially prescient. In the spring, Cywinski said Applebee’s was the closest to limited service in terms of operations and customer demographics as it’s ever been. And with inflation driving prices up even in fast food, the brand’s value proposition could become even more appealing.
2 Darden’s flagship was the only publicly traded brand in this report to post negative sales compared to the prior year. Nevertheless, the timeframe of Olive Garden’s fiscal year (ending May 2021) played a major role in its relatively muted performance. Those numbers stand in stark contrast to 2022 sales, which, at $4.5 billion, surpass pre-COVID levels.
Despite these substantial gains, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing in the most recent fiscal year. Unlike other brands in the Darden portfolio, Olive Garden didn’t boost sales in the third quarter compared to pre-COVID levels. Leaders cited a number of factors including the Omicron spike, a general labor crunch, and a pair of consecutive storms in January. Then, company veteran Gene Lee stepped down as chief executive in May after more than seven years at the helm. COO and president Rick Cardenas, who, in one of those beloved foodservice origin stories, can trace his career back to busser in high school, assumed the role just in time to lead the company’s Q4 earnings call in June.
3 Last year brought a mix of extremes for Texas Roadhouse. On the positive side, the company grew sales by more than a billion dollars and added 30-plus new locations to its system. But it also lost founder Kent Taylor, whose business vision and quirky personality had guided the brand for nearly three decades. Jerry Morgan, who had been named president a few months prior to Taylor’s passing, stepped into the CEO role immediately. Under his and other long-time leaders’ direction, Texas Roadhouse has continued to post positive results, despite having to raise prices last fall amid mounting inflationary pressures. Rather than cut corners through tactics like shrinking portion sizes or sourcing lower quality ingredients, Morgan says the brand will remain steadfast in its mission to “provide unmatched value to our guest.”
4 Dine Brands’ breakfast chain regained lost ground last year with sales approaching though not quite reaching pre-COVID levels. Nevertheless, IHOP is far from deterred. Like sister brand Applebee’s, it’s pursuing new opportunities on multiple fronts, including its first loyalty program (International Bank of Pancakes), a slew of LTOs, and the long-awaited debut of its fast casual, Flip’d. But perhaps the most promising development is its maiden foray into the world of virtual brands. Thrilled Cheese and Super Mega Dilla, specializing in sandwiches and quesadillas, respectively, launched in spring and are soon expected to be in more than half the brand’s U.S. locations.
5 Chili’s posted incremental improvements in its fiscal year ending June 2021, and that progress has continued into this calendar year, with average weekly sales in February and March hitting four-year highs. To combat rising prices, the brand is continuing its tech-forward initiatives while also reengineering the menu to be more cost-effective and operations more streamlined. The ongoing rollout of the Team Service Evolution model is putting more tablets into servers’ hands while Rita the Robot—an AI that can serve, buss, host, and sing—continues its beta tests. At the top ranks of parent company Brinker, Wyman Roberts retired in June after nearly a decade as CEO. Former KFC president and chief concept officer Kevin Hochman assumed the role.
6 ”America’s Diner” regained lost ground last year, but staffing shortages continued to hamper plans for a system-wide return to 24/7 hours. Nevertheless, 2022 has already proved a momentous year for the brand. In early May, Denny’s announced it agreed to purchase Orlando-based Keke’s Breakfast Café for $82.5 million; the following month, Kelli Valade began her tenure as CEO, a role she’d recently left at Red Lobster after only eight months at the helm.
7 The Cheesecake Factory continues to punch above its weight. The restaurant’s enviable average unit sales have long placed it right up there with brands quadruple the size, and COVID didn’t tarnish that superpower. After a rough 2020, when the company struck a deal with Roark Capital to shore up its own liquidity, 2021 was a reawakening; the brand bought back the majority of Roark’s stake and brought in even more customers. By the end of last year, average weekly sales were 10.5 percent higher than 2019 levels. The brand was also attracting a slew of new customers while its “frequent cohort”increased their visits from 14 to 20 per year on average. And although The Cheesecake Factory stumbled during the winter Omicron surge, the company is confident its extensive menu with varying price points gives it a leg up in the face of inflation.
8 Even without factoring in its retail arm’s roughly $600 million in sales, Cracker Barrel performed admirably in the fiscal year ending July 2021. Last summer’s Delta surge combined with more consumers seeking special occasion dining experiences dampened sales for a spell, but the company continued pulling multiple levers and is now enjoying the fruits of its labor. Two virtual brands, Chicken n’ Biscuits and The Pancake Kitchen, plus multiple ghost kitchen locations have anchored its off-premises business. Cracker Barrel is also expanding its fledgling beer-and-wine program and working to incorporate more tech into operations.
9 The Bloomin’ Brands all-star entered 2021 with a major leg-up in the unfolding labor crisis. The company’s early decision to not furlough workers accelerated its recovery. By the second quarter, Outback Steakhouse and all sister concepts were besting pre-COVID comps. To offset inflationary pressures, the brand is redirecting resources once focused on LTOs and discounting toward digital initiatives, new technology, and streamlined operations. In addition to launching catering for the first time, Outback unveiled a new prototype, featuring a fresh ambiance and more efficient layout that cuts square footage by 16 percent without trimming seating.
10 There’s little doubt Darden’s second largest brand outperformed big sister Olive Garden in the 2021 fiscal year. In fact, it was the only bright spot in the company’s holdings with its “Fine Dining” and “Other Business” concepts backsliding.
The brand’s momentum is continuing, and LongHorn Steakhouse could soon eclipse $2 billion in annual sales for the first time in its four-decade run. As of spring, it was turning out average weekly sales 25 percent higher than pre-COVID numbers, as opposed to Olive Garden, whose sales were only up 5 percent. Newly minted CEO Cardenas credited this strong performance to improvements, like larger portion sizes and higher quality proteins, which began before 2020 and continued throughout the pandemic.
11 Full service’s largest burger chain posted strong growth last year (up by a third in system-wide sales) but had to take a more conservative approach with menu innovation amid the labor crisis. Red Robin’s plan to activate Donatos in 200 locations this year was cut down to only 50; it also incurred $3.2 million in transitory labor and other expenses, such as hiring and training costs in the fourth quarter. In November, the company hired chief people officer Wayne Davis in a bid to boost applications. Red Robin is also refining its labor management structure and boosting hourly wages. At the highest level, CEO Paul Murphy is set to retire at the end of this year when his contract expires.
12 Strong AUVs rather than unit expansion pushed BJ’s Restaurants back over the $1 billion mark in 2021. The new year began on uneven footing when the Omicron spike compounded labor challenges and forced the brand to curtail operating hours and menus at several locations. But by spring, weekly store sales were up some $20,000, and leadership was optimistic about its expansion goals, first with eight new units this year and eventually 425 nationwide.
13 Less than a year into its status as a publicly traded company, First Watch is already wowing the industry and investors alike, with sales catapulting 75 percent in the 12-month period ending December 2021. And when Omicron tripped up other restaurants in the early months of 2022, First Watch posted Q1 numbers higher than the same period in 2019. Ever-present inflation could bring some friction (the breakfast chain was forced to raise prices 3.5 percent earlier this year), but it’s unlikely to slow the brand’s momentum to a significant degree.
14 Although Outback Steakhouse garnered plenty of buzz when it launched catering, sister concept Carrabba’s could have even greater potential in this arena. In 2021, catering sales increased 46 percent for the Italian chain compared to 2019 levels. This jump is fueled, in part, by Carrabba’s success in the off-premises space, with delivery and carryout accounting for 37 percent of sales.
15 Bloomin’s seafood restaurant pushed sales over the $500 million mark last year. Foot traffic was still slightly down from 2019 levels but significantly higher than 2020. Compared to Outback and Carrabba’s, Bonefish remains focused on dine-in.
16 Like the rest of the eatertaiment category, Dave & Buster’s was pummeled by COVID; the company almost declared Chapter 11 in 2020. It’s a completely different story today. Of the featured public brands in this year’s FSR 50, none saw sales skyrocket like Dave & Buster’s, who closed 2021 with a sales increase just shy of 200 percent. The brand’s winning streak is likely to continue following the acquisition of competitor Main Event.
17 While many steakhouses experienced a return to normalcy in 2021, Ruth’s Chris reached new heights, with sales lifting by 50 percent. Despite soaring beef prices (to the tune of nearly 40 percent), the brand remains hopeful for the future. As of March, it had already opened a new location in Florida and had two more on the way and five in the pipeline for 2023.
18 Despite inflationary pressures, Chuy’s stood firm in its commitment not to raise menu prices in 2021. While it made no such promises this calendar year, the restaurant has been leaning into its value quotient and bringing back a number of menu items that had been culled over the last two years.
19 Bloomin’s fine-dining steakhouse experienced a tremendous boost in 2021. Off-premises never caught on the way it did at sisters Outback and Carrabba’s (at best, it accounted for 16 percent of sales), so last year’s return to in-person dining righted the ship to a comfortable 91/9 split for on- and off-premises, respectively. Check averages also enjoyed a $10 boost and now clock in at $90.
20 Famous Dave’s has M&A on the brain. Over the last two years, parent company BBQ Holdings (now Famous Hospitality) has acquired half a dozen brands, including the Village Inn, Bakers Square, and most recently, in a $28 million deal, Barrio Queen. Meanwhile, Famous Dave’s is embracing line-service and drive-thru formatting, as well as ghost kitchens.
21 Unlike sister restaurant Chili’s, Maggiano’s was unable to pull off positive comps in the fiscal year ending June 2021, with Brinker citing reduced restaurant and banquet traffic. By the fourth quarter, traffic was beginning to improve and early 2022 data suggests it should push past the $300 million mark though not quite reach its pre-COVID sales.
22 After acquiring Village Inn and Bakers Square for $13.5 million, Famous Hospitality is charting a new course for Village Inn, the second-largest brand in its portfolio. Plans are underway to meld Village Inn and Granite City Food & Brewery into dual operations, while a new prototype, dubbed VI Café, made its grand debut earlier this year in Nebraska.
23 Like The Cheesecake Factory, The ONE Group’s full-service concept balances a small system with average unit volumes that would make most brands blush. CEO Manny Hilario credits pent-up consumer demand for catapulting STK beyond its 2019 sales. This year, the brand plans to bolster its system with two company-owned locations in Dallas and San Francisco, plus a managed restaurant in London.
24 In the three years since The Cheesecake Factory purchased North Italia, the brand has navigated the pandemic and come out stronger; sales and restaurant additions are beating pre-COVID levels. As for future growth, North Italia is feeling bullish, with five new locations on tap this year and a goal of 20 percent unit growth for the foreseeable future.
25 Good Times Restaurants’ full-service brand didn’t plummet in 2020 (sales dipped less than 5 percent), setting it up for success in 2021, when sales climbed 11 percent compared to 2019. Even though Bad Daddy Burger Bar had to raise menu prices 6 percent, the 2022 fiscal year is still trending upward.
26 Kura Sushi opened seven stores and boosted sales by more than 40 percent in 2021. Now, the concept is exploring technology beyond its signature conveyor belt. As of June, all domestic locations feature table tablets with self-checkout and drink ordering functions and Kur-B the KuraBot, which welcomes guests and brings drinks and condiments.