One restaurant chain is defying the stereotype that millennials don't want fast food

Arby’s had a record year in 2015.

Same-store sales grew 8.1% in that time, the company told Business Insider. That’s more than three times the growth rate of the quick-service restaurant industry as a whole.

The successful year marks 21 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth — the result of a turnaround effort to be known as more than just a roast beef restaurant that Arby’s launched in 2013.

“Arby’s has always had a lot of quality products and has always had more than roast beef on its menu, but I think we found a particularly effective way to communicate that,” CEO Paul Brown told Business Insider.

Soon after Brown took leadership of Arby’s three years ago, the company began pushing different kinds of sandwiches — all super meaty — with a special focus on quirky limited-time-offerings like the current King Hawaiian Fish Deluxe. The emphasis on fresh meat was accompanied by a new brash marketing style that lead to stunts like buying Pharrell’s Arby’s-esque hat and engaging in a tongue-in-cheek feud with comedian Jon Stewart.

The protein-rich dishes and marketing makeover allowed Arby’s to attract an especially attractive market segment: millennials. In just two years, 18 to 34-year-olds have gone from making up 38% of Arby’s customers to 54% in 2015.

Arby’s approach to marketing, which Brown calls “as non-corporate as possible,” has been crucial in attracting these new diners. Young customers are uber-aware of when they’re being marketed to — and bristle when brands try to connect in an inauthentic or formulaic manner.

“You can’t plan it. If you do plan it and try to manufacture too much, it doesn’t work,” says Brown. “I remember conversations at the beginning of 2015 saying, ‘Wow, we had a really great year in 2014 — Pharrell’s hat, we’ll never be able to replicate that again.’ And, I would say more interesting things happened in ’15 than ’14.”

Additionally, Brown says that the launch of an afternoon daypart has brought new millennial customers to the chain with increasing frequency. In October, the company launched “happy hour” from 2 to 5 p.m., during which time participating locations sell sliders, drinks, and sides for just one dollar.

While new menu items and social media stunts make headlines, Arby’s has also made upgrades — both obvious and behind-the-scenes — to the customer experience. 

Three years ago, the company began holding a yearly “brand camp,” which requires employees from every restaurant to take half a day off to retrain and reboot. Unlike Chipotle’s upcoming retraining effort, however, the annual event is “guest-friendly,” meaning restaurants stay open as employees reflect and learn.

An aggressive remodeling effort is also underway, with Arby’s completing 179 remodels in 2015. That’s greater than the company previously estimated, in part because franchisees decided to remodel at a faster rate than anticipated after witnessing positive customer reaction.

Now that the chain has built up momentum, Brown isn’t slowing down.

“Over the last few years we’ve been doing a lot of new things — and that’s great,” he says. “2016 is a little less about doing new things and a bit more about doing things better and more efficiently and more effectively.”

That means more new menu items, even greater expansion, and marketing campaigns that are still completely unknown.

“I feel pretty good that we’ll have another surprising year in front of us,” says Brown.

NOW WATCH: Mesmerising time-lapse of Arby’s 13-hour commercial showing brisket being smoked

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