Over 240 fast casual executives attended the gala to find out their rankings.

Shaquille O’Neal-owned Big Chicken had much to cluck about Sunday when it took top honors at the Fast Casual Top 100 Movers & Shakers awards gala in Chicago at the LondonHouse.

Josh Halpern, president, accepted the award for the 40-unit brand, which was founded in 2018 and has over 340 locations in development.

The chain is also planning to be the first restaurant in space, partnering last year with Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, to develop an education curriculum inspiring future generations about science, technology, engineering and math careers. The lesson plans helped students think creatively about what a new menu item might look like in space. In-store guests brought their completed postcards to the Big Chicken register to receive a free kid’s sundae. As part of the most recent New Shepard mission, Blue Origin carried these postcards, stamped them “flown to space,” and returned them to the creators.

“2023 was a BIG year for Big Chicken,” said Halpern, who made this year’s list of Top 25 Fast Casual Executives, which was also announced at the gala. “We more than doubled our open units from 10 to 28, popping up in airports, casinos, sports arenas, cruise ships and even our first corporate headquarters. And, we’re big time excited to continue building partnerships with incredible companies like Amazon, Blue Origin, Hyperlocology, Opus Training, Marqii, Ovation and many more in the year ahead. Our franchisees already have more than 20 leases signed for 2024, and we’re set to explore at least two new international markets before the year is out. There’s so much to celebrate already, but none of it would be possible without our amazing team members and franchisees.”

The year of the chicken

Big Chicken, who was third on last year’s list, wasn’t the only chicken brand garnering attention. In fact, Dave’s Hot Chicken, which received top honors in 2023, took second place, and Alabama-based Chicken Salad Chick rounded out the top three, proving that chicken brands are hotter than ever, said Cherryh Cansler, editor of FastCasual.com and co-host of the gala. Alexis Marrero, senior account executive at Loop, joined Cansler on stage as co-host.

“These brands are back in the top three this year, proving that they are in the fast casual game for the long haul,” she said. “We are excited to see what they do over the next year but will be watching to see if another food category emerges as the industry leader.”

Innovation, nimbleness and creativity

Landing on the Top 100 list takes a lot of hard work, and each brand earning the honor has a few things in common: Innovation, nimbleness and creativity. Those three attributes were top of mind as judges sifted through the hundreds of nominations received over an eight-week period. After hours of deliberation, the panel settled on 75 brands and 25 executives to round out the 2024 Fast Casual Top 100 Movers & Shakers list.

FastCasual also presented four “special awards” at the gala in partnership with a few vendors. They included:

  • Most Loved Delivery Brand in partnership with Loop: Nekter Juice Bar
  • Excellence in Guest Experience in partnership with Ovation: Taziki’s Mediterranean Café
  • Best Kiosk Experience in partnership with Bite: Original ChopShop
  • 2024 Third-Party Operational Excellence Award in partnership with SuperOrder: L&L Hawaiian BBQ

Who Wore it Best?

Gala attendees also voted for best dressed, and top honors went to Stacey Kane, fractional CMO, and Zack Oates, founder of Ovation.

Click here to read the Fast Casual Top 100 report, sponsored by Givex, featuring the Top 75 brands and 25 executives.

About Networld Media Group

Founded in 2000, Networld Media Group is a leading media communications company specializing in digital media, events and associations in the technology, restaurant, banking, and retail industries. It’s media brands include ATMmarketplace.com, DigitalSignageToday.com, FastCasual.com, KioskMarketplace.com, QSRweb.com, RetailCustomerExperience.com and RewardsThatMatter.com. Events under the Networld umbrella include the Fast Casual Executive Summit, the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit and the Self-Service Innovation Summit.

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