Conventional wisdom holds true that rapidly growing companies represent prime sponsorship prospects. 
Such is the case in the restaurant category, where many of the industry’s fastest growing companies are signing new deals to promote their offerings, drive store traffic and support brand positioning.
In one of the category’s largest deals this year, Buffalo Wild Wings, Inc. replaced Insight Enterprises, Inc. as title of the former Insight Bowl. The company was the sixth fastest-growing restaurant chain in 2011 in terms of sales, according to Stores Magazine, a publication of the National Retail Federation.
Other companies in the top-ten are signing new deals at the local level. Noodles & Co. (8th) this year is sponsoring three stops of the Columbia Muddy Buddy Ride & Run Series, while Wingstop Restaurants, Inc. (9th) last week announced new ties with the ECHL Stockton Thunder and University of Miami athletics.
Other restaurants are using sponsorship as a defensive play. Case in point: A Chick-fil-A, Inc. (10th) franchisee in Nashua, N.H. has partnered with the Aug. 11 New Hampshire Pride Fest in the wake of Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s public stance against gay marriage.
Not every company in the top-ten list has embraced sponsorship. Most notably: Five Guys Enterprises, LLC. The country’s fastest-growing restaurant chain has largely eschewed sponsorship in favor of word-of-mouth marketing. The company posted a whopping 48 percent increase in sales in 2011.
The few properties Five Guys sponsors are largely media driven. For example, the company’s sponsorship of the Florida State Fair centers around a digital billboard located on Tampa’s I-4 corridor.
Below, five things to consider when pitching the restaurant category:    
Help drive store traffic. Like every other segment in the retail category, restaurant chains use sponsorship to drive traffic to their outlets.
Companies do that in various ways ranging from coupon distribution at sponsored properties to hosting property-themed events at local restaurants.
For example, Noodles & Co. distributes coupons at Columbia Muddy Buddy Series events, while Buffalo Wild Wings leverages the NFL Minnesota Vikings by hosting live weekly radio broadcasts by Vikings announcer Paul Allen.
Promote menu offerings. Restaurant chains frequently use sponsorship to sample product and promote menu items.  
For its part, Noodles & Co. aligned with the Columbia Muddy Buddy Series to educate race participants about the breadth of its menu.
“They want to change the perception that they’re just a pasta company,” said Joseph Dressler, vice president of integrated media with The Competitor Group, which owns and produces the obstacle course series.
Support marketing taglines. Like other industries, restaurant chains frequently use sponsorship to support marketing messages.
For example, Jimmy John’s Franchise, LLC uses its sponsorship of Kevin Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team to promote its “Freaky Fast” tagline.
Lock out immediate competitors. To no surprise, most companies contacted by IEG SR prefer deals that afford category exclusivity.
However, the depth of exclusivity ranges from company to company. For example, Buffalo Wild Wings looks for exclusivity across a number of categories (quick-service restaurants, pizza delivery, sports bars, chicken wings, etc.), while Wingstop opts for exclusivity in the wing category.
“We look for exclusivity in the wing or chicken categories. A company like McDonald’s is not a big competitor for us. If they were involved it wouldn’t be trouble,” said Andy Howard, CMO of Wingstop Restaurants, Inc.  
Consider local marketing dollars. Many companies fund pro sports teams, festivals and other local properties out of local marketing budgets.
Those funds typically fall under the jurisdiction of corporate field marketing managers, advertising co-ops and individual franchisees.
For its part, Wingstop sponsors local properties on behalf of14 advertising co-ops that oversee local marketing activity. The company’s six field marketing managers spearhead deals located in markets without advertising co-ops.
Buffalo Wild Wings, Inc.
5500 Wayzata Blvd., Ste. 1600
Minneapolis, MN 55416
Bob Ruhland, vice president of marketing
Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: The country’s sixth fastest-growing restaurant chain this year replaced Insight Enterprises, Inc. as title of the former Insight Bowl. BWW will use the sponsorship to promote its sports-centric positioning to a national audience. “Since we started the company in 1982 we have become synonymous with sports. Sponsoring a bowl game is a natural next step that will resonate with our guests,” said Ruhland. The company also will use the tie to promote its in-store “stadium experience” beyond the four walls of its more than 835 restaurants, he said. Looks for broad category exclusivity. Local deals are orchestrated between eight regional marketing managers and local franchisees; roughly 60 percent of the company’s restaurants are franchised.   
Current deals: Title: Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Cosponsor: AHL Charlotte Checkers and Milwaukee Admirals; ALSAC St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; Eastern Illinois University Athletics; Fifth Third River Bank Run, Grand Rapids, Mich.; IFL Chicago Slaughter; Iona College Athletics; MLS Chicago Fire; 94.5 Country Stampede presented by Verizon, Manhattan, Kan.; Naperville Park District, Ill.; NBA Dallas Mavericks, Detroit Pistons and Oklahoma City Thunder; NBDL Dakota Wizards; NFL Minnesota Vikings; NHL Detroit Red Wings; Northwestern University Athletics; PGA Tour The Principal Charity Classic presented by Wells Fargo.  
Additional Comments: Activates local ties with in-store athlete appearances, on-site sampling programs and traffic-driving promotions. For example, leverages Minnesota Vikings with live weekly broadcasts by radio announcer Paul Allen at local restaurants; the company also samples chicken wings out of a food truck at Mall of America Field at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Horizon Media’s Scout Sports and Entertainment negotiated the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl sponsorship.
Chick-fil-A, Inc.
5200 Buffington Rd.
Atlanta, GA 30349
Steve Robinson, senior vice president and CMO
Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: The tenth fastest-growing U.S. restaurant chain uses sponsorship to demonstrate its community citizenship, sample product and drive store traffic. Activates 15-year-old Chick-fil-A Bowl at the national, regional and local level ranging from ticket sweepstakes to in-store marketing collateral that promotes the sponsorship. Frequently activates ties with cow mascot. For example, Chick-fil-A activated Dick’s Sporting Goods Bolder Boulder with 20 on-site mascots, a presence at the event’s expo and a mobile food truck that distributed free sandwiches. Activated Florida’s Sunfest with appearances by the cow mascot and by providing food to the event’s 2,500 volunteers; the company also offered the volunteers special offers to drive store traffic. Operates roughly 1,500 restaurants in 40 states.
Current Deals: Title: Chick-fil-A Bowl; Chick-fil-A Leadercast. Cosponsor: AHL Charlotte Checkers; Atlanta Jazz Festival; BBVA Compass Bowl;  Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl; Colorado National Speedway; Delaware State University Athletics; Dick’s Sporting Goods Bolder Boulder; Georgia World Congress Center; Great Georgia Air Show; James Madison University Athletics; Kennesaw State University Athletics; Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas; Mercer University Athletics; Miami-Dade County Fair & Exposition; MLB Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays; NBA Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic; New Hampshire Pride Fest; NFL Atlanta Falcons;  PGA Tour AT&T Championship presented by Alcatel-Lucent and Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic;  San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo; SPHL Columbus Cottonmouths; Sunfest, West Palm Beach, Fla.
Additional comments: Chick-fil-A Bowl partnership includes Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game and the Chick-fil-A Bowl Challenge charity golf tournament. L.J. Yankosky, sponsorships & event marketing manager, helps activate.
Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc.
1401 Wynkoop St., Suite 500
Denver, CO 80202
Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing officer
Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: With 23.5% sales growth, Chipotle is the third fastest-growing restaurant chain in the U.S. The company uses sponsorship to support local communities, drive store traffic and support its food artisan positioning. For example, the company uses the proprietary Cultivate Food, Ideas & Music Festivals to let consumers experience Chipotle in an atmosphere that features cooking demonstrations by celebrity chefs and live music. Chipotle this year expanded the festival with a new event in Denver, joining its existing festival in Chicago.  The company focuses on film festivals, food fests, music events and other types of properties that draw tastemakers. Local store marketing managers spearhead local deals. Owns and operates roughly 1,200 restaurants.
Current deals: Epik Dance Company, Phoenix; Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival; Food Network Wine & Food Festival presented by Food & Wine; Illinois Youth Soccer Assn.; Loyola Marymount University Athletics; Matthews Alive! festival, N.C.; MLB San Francisco Giants; Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon; NBA Washington Wizards; NHL Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals; Northwestern University Athletics; Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago; PrideFest Denver; Pygmalion Music Festival, Champaign-Urban, Ill.;  Santa Barbara International Film Festival; Seattle International Film Festival; Team Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda professional cycling team; Toughman, Rochester, N.Y.; University of Portland Athletics; Vail Film Festival presented by Cadillac.
Additional comments: Chipotle in 2011 expanded its partnership with the Team Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda pro cycling team with title of Slipstream Sport’s development cycling team. The company is co-sponsoring the team with First Solar, Inc. in 2012.
Jimmy John’s Franchise, LLC
2212 Fox Dr.
Champaign, IL 61820
Tina Gilman, director of marketing & communications
Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: The country’s second-fastest growing chain operates and franchises more than 1,000 restaurants in more than 35 states, most of which are based in the Midwest. The company uses its partnership with Kevin Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team and the ISOC AMSOIL Championship Snocross Series to support its “Freaky Fast” tagline.   
Current deals: AMSOIL Championship Snocross Series; Boss Racing ACSS team; Eastern Kentucky University Athletics; Bowl; IFL Chicago Slaughter; Kennesaw State University Athletics; Marquette University Athletics; Matthews Alive festival, N.C.; NFL Minnesota Vikings; NHL Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings; PGA Tour Principal Charity Classic presented by Wells Fargo; Richard Childress Racing NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team; Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Athletics; University of South Carolina Upstate Athletics; Western Michigan University Athletics.
Additional Comments: Has endorsement deal with UFC fighter Brock Lesnar.
Noodles & Co.
520 Zang St., Ste. D
Broomfield, CO 80021
Dan Fogarty, CMO  
Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: While it may not be quite as active as other restaurant chains, the eighth fastest-growing chain is increasing its use of sponsorship. The privately-owned seller of noodle dishes, vegetable bowls and other entrees his year is sponsoring three stops on the Columbia Muddy Buddy Ride & Run Series. Noodles & Co. took the sponsorship to educate consumers about its diverse menu. The company is activating the tie with on-site coupon distribution. Noodles & Co. operates and franchises more than 300 restaurants in roughly 20 states.
Current deals: Bite of Oregon presented by Amica; Columbia Muddy Buddy Ride & Run Series (three events); Matthews Alive festival, N.C.; University of Denver Athletics.
Additional comments: Activates three-year-old Bite of Oregon tie by selling family-friendly meals at the three-day event. 
Wingstop Restaurants, Inc.  
1101 E. Arapaho Rd., Ste. 150
Richardson, Texas 75081
Andy Howard, CMO
Sponsorship/Activation Strategy: The country’s ninth fastest-growing chain operates more than 525 stores, roughly 95 percent of which are franchised.  The company focuses on college and pro sports teams to support its sports positioning. “Chicken wings and sports go well together,” said Howard. Inked new deals this month with University of Miami athletics and ECHL Stockton Thunder, the latter of which represents the company’s first tie with a pro hockey team. Activates with in-store player appearances on on-site text message promotions; also looks to cater food for team meetings and other get-togethers. Looks for exclusivity in the wing category. Funds deals out of 14 local advertising co-ops. For example, the Wingstop Southern California Advertising Assn. spearheaded MLB Los Angeles Dodgers deal. Six field marketing managers help review. Former NFL Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman serves as company spokesman and sits on Wingstop’s board of directors.
Current deals: ECHL Stockton Thunder; Grambling State University Athletics; MLB Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Los Angeles Dodgers; NBA Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings; NFL Dallas Cowboys; PGA Tour Valero Texas Open; University of Memphis Athletics; University of Miami Athletics.
Additional comments: Wingstop will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2013. Plans to open roughly 60 to 80 stores annually over the next few years. Takeout food represents roughly 70 percent of the company’s business, with chicken wings and fries representing 90 percent of business.
The Top Ten: The Fastest Growing U.S. Restaurant Chains
Company Sales growth
(2011 v 2010)
U.S. retail
sales (000)
2011 stores Growth
(2011 v 2010)
Five Guys 48% 921,000 918 24.9%
Jimmy John’s 28.3% 953,000 1,329 17.6%
Chipotle Mexican Grill 23.5 2,261,000 1,226 13.4%
BJ’s Restaurants 20.8% 621,000 116 12.6%
Cheddar’s Casual Café 20.5% 438,000 106 51.4%
Buffalo Wild Wings 19.8% 2,040,000 813 11.1%
Panda Restaurant Group 17.1% 1,457,000 1,438 3.2%
Noodles & Co. 17% 304,000 212 14%
Wingstop Restaurants 16.4% 361,000 488 4.5%
Chick-fil-A 13.1% 4,051,000 1,615 4.9%