Special Report

These Are the Top 10 Chicken Chains in America

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We love our chicken in America. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that we ate about 93.8 pounds of it per person last year. A 2018 survey of chicken-eating habits conducted by the National Chicken Council found that 86% of respondents said that in the two weeks preceding the survey they had eaten a chicken meal or snack bought at a supermarket and 68% had eaten one from a food service establishment.

According to the food service industry publication Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN), fast food chicken chains represent the fastest-growing segment in the business, with total sales up 8.9% — far outpacing the 3.2% overall average growth for the nation’s top 200 chains.  

NRN pulled a list of the top 10 chicken chains in America, by systemwide sales, from its ranking of 200 chains for 2018. These range from Boston Market, founded in a Boston suburb as Boston Chicken in 1985 (the name changed a decade later), with sales of less than $600 million last year, to the 800-pound fryer in the room — the controversial Chick-fil-A, whose sales exceeded $10 billion.

Click here to see the top ten chicken chains in America.

That poultry behemoth opened 129 new outlets last year, an increase of 5.8%, but its sales went up by 16.7%, with estimated sales of $4.6 million per location. That makes Chick-fil-A more successful than Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, or Subway. It’s now the third largest fast food operation in the country, after Starbucks and McDonalds. All of these are included in this list of the most iconic items at the nation’s biggest fast food chains.

Chick-fil-A was also a participant in this summer’s so-called chicken wars, ignited when Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen (the nation’s third largest chicken chain) introduced its first-ever chicken sandwich with a social media campaign that went viral. Chick-fil-A responded with a tweet suggesting that its own chicken sandwich was the original, and the fray was on. Both chains earned major social media mentions and engagements — and Popeyes sold so many sandwiches that it ran out of chicken breast and stopped offering the sandwiches until further notice.

Of course, chicken sandwiches are only one of the many ways in which we enjoy America’s favorite bird. These are the best restaurant chicken dishes in America.

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10. Boston Market
> Headquarters: Golden, Colorado
> 2018 systemwide sales: $557.8 million

This pioneering rotisserie-chicken chain has been downsizing. At the end of 2018, it had 454 locations around the country, but this July the chain announced that it was shuttering 45 of them. Though it still has a place on NRN’s top 10 list, sales have been declining steadily since a peak of $615 million in 2014. Overexpansion, a menu that lags behind consumer preferences, and the ubiquity of rotisserie chickens at the nation’s supermarkets have been cited as among the reasons for its decline.

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9. Church’s Chicken
> Headquarters: Atlanta, Georgia
> 2018 systemwide sales: $753.7 million

A 67-year-old chain with about 1,045 U.S. locations, Church’s is one of America’s favorite places to get chicken. In addition to its hand-battered fried chicken, Church’s offers Southern-style sides, including fried okra, honey-butter biscuits, and jalapeños, either pickled or in the form of “Cheese Bombers.”

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8. El Pollo Loco
> Headquarters: Costa Mesa, California
> 2018 systemwide sales: $868.4 million

A rarity in the fast food chicken world because its birds are marinated in citrus juices and spices and then flame-grilled instead of battered and deep-fried, El Pollo Loco reported a systemwide 1.2% sales growth at the end of 2018, compared with a 1.5% growth the previous year. The chain, which has 484 restaurants around the country, offers chicken burritos, tostadas, and quesadillas as well as combination plates, including beans, rice, and tortillas or chips.

7. Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers
> Headquarters: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
> 2018 systemwide sales: $1.18 billion

A 400-outlet operation founded in 1996, Raising Cane’s — named after a yellow Labrador belonging to one of the founders — recorded a category-topping 22.5% systemwide sales growth in 2018. The specialty, obviously, is chicken fingers — boneless, battered, and deep-fried. Crinkle-cut fries, coleslaw, and Texas toast fill out the menu.

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6. Wingstop
> Headquarters: Dallas, Texas
> 2018 systemwide sales: $1.21 billion

With almost 1,150 units around the U.S., Wingstop experienced a 15.3% sales increase in 2018, over its 2017 number. Wings and fries are the focus of the business, and the chain takes pride in not offering gluten-free, paleo, or vegan options. “We’re not a flavor-of-the-month brand by any stretch,” the company’s CEO, Charlie Morrison, told Restaurant Business earlier this year.

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5. Bojangles Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits
> Headquarters: Charlotte, North Carolina
> 2018 systemwide sales: $1.3 billion

With 763 restaurants as of this summer, this Southern-inflected chain, founded in 1977 and primarily covering the southeastern U.S., recently hired a new chief development officer charged with driving growth. Sold to two investment companies last fall and taken private, the chain reported a meager overall 1.4% sales growth in 2018 over the previous year.

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4. Zaxby’s
> Headquarters: Athens, Georgia
> 2018 systemwide sales: $1.8 billion

While other chains might specialize in chicken wings or chicken fingers, Zaxby’s offers both, in several varieties, as well as salads not usually found on fast-food menus (the Caesar and the Cobb). Zaxby’s saw a 7.4% sales growth across its 900-plus units last year.

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3. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
> Headquarters: Miami, Florida
> 2018 systemwide sales: $3.2 billion

“Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen’s eight-day chicken sandwich frenzy, ignited with a single tweet,” wrote reporter Jonathan Maze last month in Restaurant Business, “has been bad news for two top rivals: KFC and Chick-fil-A.” Both rival operations lost business to Popeyes in August, with some of the chain’s units reporting sales increases of 50% to 60% for the week of August 19. Last year, Popeyes saw a 5.1% increase in sales from its 2,347 U.S. restaurants, but chances are the number will be higher for 2019.

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2. KFC
> Headquarters: Louisville, Kentucky
> 2018 systemwide sales: $4.4 billion

The granddaddy of American fried chicken chains, whose origins date back 89 years to Harland Sanders’ first restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky, KFC might have almost 4,100 units around America, but it showed a disappointing 0.4% increase in sales last year over 2017. It’s trying new strategies, including a test of a vegan fried chicken product produced by Beyond Meat, in the form of nuggets and wings, at a unit in Atlanta in August, and the rollout this month of four varieties of chicken wings.

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Source: Wolterk / Getty Images

1. Chick-fil-A
> Headquarters: Atlanta, Georgia
> 2018 systemwide sales: $10.5 billion

Chick-fil-A has been criticized and sometimes boycotted over its owners’ support of anti-gay groups and its opposition to same-sex marriage — but over the years, protests have quieted, and, as Slate reported earlier this year, “many progressives have slunk back through the restaurant’s doors.” That may partially account for the fact that the chain rules the roost in the fast-food chicken world, with its 2,370 U.S. units bringing in more than $10 billion last year, representing a 13.5% increase over 2017.

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