It’s hard to tell how America’s most successful restaurant chains will emerge from our year-plus of pandemic restrictions and changed eating habits — but the industry got a good head start in 2019, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available.
The 500 largest-grossing chains saw an average growth in U.S. sales that year of 4.2%, the largest gain since 2015. Some operations did even better: Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill, for instance, each enjoyed 7.4% increases.
The key industry publication Restaurant Business, in collaboration with the food service research and consulting firm Technomic, has recently published its annual ranking of those top 500, encompassing both fast-food outlets like McDonald’s and KFC and sit-down restaurant brands like The Cheesecake Factory and T.G.I. Friday’s.
24/7 Wall St. has singled out the top 50 here. The most successful chains were those specializing in burgers (11 of the 50) and chicken (seven entries on the list). So-called “ethnic” concepts didn’t do so well, with only two categorized as Mexican and one as Chinese. (Chains aren’t the only places serving our favorite kind of poultry. These are the 30 best fried chicken places in America.)
As a measure of how much Americans spend on chain-restaurant fare, only one operation on the list, cult favorite In-N-Out Burger at No. 50, brought in less than a billion dollars — and not much less. (Fans of In-N-Out know how to get specialties that aren’t advertised to the general public. For more inside information, read about these secret off-the-menu items to order at your favorite chains.)
Information on U.S. systemwide sales for chain restaurants, and for the number of units each one currently has open, come from “The Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report,” published by Restaurant Business and compiled by the publication in collaboration with the food service research and consulting firm Technomic. Sales figures, which are for the 2019 calendar year, are drawn, says Restaurant Business, from “a combination of public company financial filings, direct operator surveying, franchise disclosure documents and proprietary valuation algorithms.”
The sweet spot was obviously in the $1 to $4 billion range, which accommodated numbers 17 through 49. After that, sales grew in leaps and bounds, reaching all the way to more than $40 billion for the No. 1 chain — McDonald’s.