The most successful restaurants of the past year

If 2020 was the year of restaurant industry survival, then 2021 was the year of multi-channel growth, as restaurants learned to be digital natives and changed their service models to cater to the on-demand culture of the post-COVID consumer – thus, making their restaurants more efficient by getting more Little.

Data in the NRN Top 500, published in partnership with Datassential, shows that nearly a fifth of restaurant chains developed AUVs in 2021 — many in double-digit ratios — while their store shrunk or stagnated at the same time. The secret to the sales growth of many of these chains? Investing in digital technology, which offset the slump when the physical footprint was missing. The more channels you can open—whether through delivery, takeout, drive-through, curbside pickup or in-store dining—the more chances you have to pick up on a new guest experience or come back.

That’s what Brinker International Inc. has learned. When the casual dining parent company expanded its very successful first virtual restaurant, Just Wings, and opened a second virtual brand, Maggiano’s Italian Classics, in 2021. For Chili’s and Maggiano’s, said Wade Allen, Senior Vice President, Head of Innovation at Brinker. While Chili unit growth declined 3.5% in 2021, AUVs rose 26.4%.

“We are used to what I sometimes call the ‘Amazon effect’ of being able to order something and get it right away,” Allen said. “And why can’t every company do that? I think what our guests are now looking for is convenience: something that is quick and easy, but it also has to be delicious and not a typical QSR restaurant. So, whether it’s in the dining room or at home, you have to serve a product Fantastic at a great value.”

With the growth of Just Wings and the introduction of virtual Italian classics from Maggiano, Brinker began to handle greater volumes of orders out of the premises and introduced new customers to the idea of ​​Chili’s and Maggiano’s as brands you don’t have to drive for. to experience.

Following the success of its first virtual restaurant, Just Wings, Brinker International opened a second restaurant, Maggiano’s Italian Classics, in 2021.

“A lot of our delivery customers were like, ‘I didn’t even know Chili’s delivered until today,’” Allen said. “The moving and delivery business became our top priority when the dining rooms slowed down, hence the growth. …Then the dining rooms came back in 2021 and people were ready to take off their masks and live a normal life.”

Companies like Brinker have learned how important it is to let customers know their digital presence. For El Pollo Loco, customers are becoming more familiar with the brand through trendy social media platforms. In 2021, El Pollo Loco began ramping up its presence on TikTok, sparking a buzz for items like tostada salads – which came back for a limited time last summer – and continuing into this year with the new birria taco. After birria taco appeared on TikTok, the new item’s sales mix jumped 8.5%.

Besides social media, chief marketing officer Andy Rippon said the brand has settled on improving communication with customers. By getting better at sending personalized messages in a timely manner to customers and spending more than half of the company’s ad spend on digital media, the company has been able to increase the pace of customers.

But increasing AUVs by 11.9% (with the number of stores growing only marginally) was a multi-pronged approach to meeting customers wherever they are.

“You can’t just say, OK, we’re going to be inclined to use TikTok, and that’s going to solve our problem,” Rippon said. “There really has to be a 360-degree approach because people are spending more time in different places, and brands that don’t adapt to this flexible way of thinking will be left behind.”


Brand resilience has been at the forefront of Focus Brands’ strategy as the company navigates the post-COVID world. While many Focus Brands have traditionally relied on automated foot traffic rather than event visits and out-of-premises sales, in 2021 Focus Brands doubled down on expanding their horizons, especially for Auntie Anne’s and Jamba. Auntie Anne’s opened its first syndicated show with Jamba in May 2021, unlocking the brand’s overall channel capabilities.

“While the mall properties have been incredibly valuable to the brand and will continue to be important going forward, we are committed to bringing the side of Auntie Anne Street to make our pastries accessible to consumers,” said Alyssa Gmelish, Head of Brands. An officer at Auntie Anne’s. “For a brand like mall-based Auntie Anne, it has been rewarding to see our investment in digital and outdoor capabilities show a strong return – people are excited to get their favorite pastries delivered right to their door.”

This strategy paid off big with 64.6% sales growth and 60% growth in AUVs in 2021 (boosted by the return of in-person shopping), even as Auntie Anne closed more than 60 locations. Sister brand Jamba experienced a similar growth spurt despite a 4% drop in store counts, even as AUVs grew nearly 14%. Today, digital sales account for a total of 18% of Jamba’s total sales, which was unheard of before the pandemic.

This success story of growing digital sales and switching your service model has echoes across the restaurant industry, such as Starbucks, which has increased AUVs by 18% as the number of units has increased by less than 1%. It has invested in small tech-based store formats like the Amazon Go Starbucks demo, which opened in November in New York.

In 2021, the development of technology-based service has proven to be a greater indicator of success than opening more stores, proving that physical real estate is not a requirement to meet customers wherever they are.

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]

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The Top 500 report is provided by Nation’s Restaurant News and Datassential, using insights from Datassential’s owned Firefly platform. Datassential’s Firefly is the ultimate strategic tool – the #1 player database, lead generator, customer marketing and intelligence platform all in one. Learn more about full access to

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