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Surprising choices for popular food brands


We love food in America. Of course, everyone in the world loves food, but we really love it. Really realllllly looooooooove it. Americans assessing themselves in the mirror this summer wearing a Speedo or bikini see the proof.

We also like everything fast, which is why McDonald's conquered the U.S., and then conquered the world. But Mickey D's is not on the list of improving fast food brands by the Landor Brand Asset Valuator (BAV). Landor is a firm which tracks brands, and the BAV is the result of thousands of interviews with consumers about things like a chain's relevance, differentiation, esteem and knowledge of a brand.

Here are the top five chains showing the most improvement in brand image over the last year. There are some names here which may shock you more than putting bacon on ice cream (which is actually really good).

No. 5: The Cheesecake Factory

Some joke that this popular fast casual dining chain should really be called "The Chicken Factory," as it uses at least as much chicken as cheesecake. The Cheesecake Factory was super sizing meals from the get go, but the restaurant is now trying to appeal to more calorie-conscious diners with a "SkinnyLicious" menu. There are new dishes which include the only ingredients hipper than bacon these days—kale and quinoa. The company's CEO, David Overton, told Food Business News, that healthy eating is the trend going forward, even though he joked he personally doesn't like kale. Hey, if he liked kale he would've called it The Kale Factory.

No. 4: KFC

An interesting choice. KFC has been doing great in China, not so great in the U.S. Janney Capital Markets says the Colonel has lost dominance in chicken fast food to Chick-Fil-A, and the most recent earnings report from parent company Yum Brands showed tepid growth here at home. But KFC is reinventing itself into a casual dining destination, a place to sit and stay. Think Starbucks meets Panera with 11 secret ingredients. That's a pretty tall order, but the BAV results suggest some consumers find the concept finger-licking good.

No. 3: Jamba Juice

See? We can be healthy! In fact, Americans are on one big juicing cleanse to get rid of all the burgers and fries. Well, some of us are. Jamba Juice sales are outpacing rivals as it starts to cash in on the juicing craze with more veggies ... more kale, less bacon (though a bacon kale juice blend might not taste awful. Just sayin').

No. 2: Dave & Buster's

Forget what I just said about kale. The vegetable is a four-letter word at Dave & Buster's, which may be one reason why the Dallas-based chain keeps breaking sales records. Not everyone wants to eat like a grazing antelope. Plus, Dave & Buster's isn't just a restaurant, it's a video arcade. Here a combo isn't a burger and fries, it's food and fun!

No. 1: Papa John's

You knew pizza had to be on top, but Papa John's? Really? The Kentucky-based chain is No. 3 in sales behind Pizza Hut and Domino's, but it tops the BAV list for best brand improvement. It also ranks higher than rivals in the American Customer Satisfaction Index. The tag line "Better ingredients, better pizza" is resonating with consumers. Thankfully,  Papa John's hasn't started pitching a kale and quinoa pizza. Yet.