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Fast-food wars: New data shows 5 big lessons

SALT LAKE CITY — 2019 was quite the year for American fast-food.

The QSR 50, an annual breakdown of the top 50 performing fast-food restaurants in America, was recently released. Produced by the fast-food magazine QSR in partnership with research firm FoodserviceResults, the QSR 50 shows how various fast-food brands performed in different categories at their U.S. locations.

A number of unique trends presented themselves in 2019. Here are five big takeaways.

1. McDonald’s still dominates

The QSR 50’s main chart, the top 50 fast-food chains by total revenue, showed just how dominant McDonald’s truly is. The golden arches brought in $40.41 billion at its U.S. locations last year — nearly double what second-place Starbucks earned ($21.55 billion).

  1. McDonald’s: $40.41 billion
  2. Starbucks: $21.55 billion
  3. Chick-fil-A: $11 billion
  4. Taco Bell: $11 billion
  5. Burger King: $10.3 billion
  6. Subway: $10 billion
  7. Wendy’s: $9.87 billion
  8. Dunkin’: $9.22 billion
  9. Domino’s: $7.1 billion
  10. Panera Bread: $5.93 billion
  11. Chipotle: $5.52 billion
  12. Pizza Hut: $5.38 billion
  13. KFC: $4.82 billion
  14. Sonic Drive-In: $4.69 billion
  15. Arby’s: $3.89 billion
  16. Little Caesars: $3.85 billion
  17. Panda Express: $3.8 billion
  18. Dairy Queen: $3.76 billion
  19. Popeyes Louisiana Chicken: $3.75 billion
  20. Jack in the Box: $3.51 billion

2. Burgers reign supreme — but that might be changing

Even if every McDonald’s shut down, burgers still would have been the most popular fast-food category last year. Here’s how the different categories stacked up:

  1. Burger: $81.6 billion
  2. Snack: $36.3 billion
  3. Chicken: $27.2 billion
  4. Sandwich: $26.4 billion
  5. Global: $22.8 billion
  6. Pizza: $20.4 billion

(Note: the “global” category includes Mexican- and Chinese-inspired fast-food.)

So yes, burgers remain the clear favorite. But non-burger restaurants are closing the gap. The QSR 50 includes data on how many locations were opened or closed for each of the top 50. And when it comes to additions, none of the top 10 were burger chains.

Unit additions:

  1. Domino’s: 253
  2. Starbucks: 216
  3. Taco Bell: 181
  4. Jersey Mike’s: 173
  5. Panera Bread: 132
  6. Popeyes Louisiana Chicken: 131
  7. (Tie) Chipotle and Chick-fil-A: 130
  8. Tropical Smoothie Cafe: 115
  9. Wingstop: 107
  10. Panda Express: 80

3. Chick-fil-A is very, very busy

You ever walk into Chick-fil-A and the place is empty? It never happens.

When it comes to average sales per store, America’s most-beloved chicken restaurant took first place.

  1. Chick-fil-A: $4.52 million
  2. Shake Shack: $4.21 million
  3. Raising Cane’s: $3.6 million
  4. Whataburger: $3.08 million
  5. McDonald’s: $2.91 million
  6. In-N-Out Burger: $2.88 million
  7. Panera Bread: $2.75 million
  8. Jason’s Deli: $2.48 million
  9. Culver’s: $2.44 million
  10. Chipotle: $2.2 million

There are some surprises here, like Jason’s Deli cracking the top 10 despite it only having 290 U.S. locations last year.

A photo of waffle fries from Chick-fil-A.

A photo of waffle fries from Chick-fil-A.
Wikimedia Commons


4. Subway is shrinking, and fast

If you only looked at the total number of locations, it would seem Subway is riding high.

Total units:

  1. Subway: 23,802
  2. Starbucks: 15,041
  3. McDonald’s: 13,846
  4. Dunkin’: 9,630
  5. Pizza Hut: 7,416
  6. Burger King: 7,346
  7. Taco Bell: 7,089
  8. Domino’s: 6,157
  9. Wendy’s: 5,852
  10. Dairy Queen: 4,381

But looks can be deceiving. Subway closed 996 U.S. locations last year. That was the most closures, by a long shot. Sonic Drive-In, which had the second-most closures, shut down only 74 locations.


5. Next year’s top 50 might be very different

All these stats are from 2019 — it’s a pre-COVID America we’re looking at here.

“The global pandemic has forced many fast food restaurants to adapt, and it’s also triggered a number of restaurant shutdowns,” QSR wrote.

What will the QSR 50 for 2020 look like? It’s hard to say definitively. But the total revenue, total units and total sales per unit will likely be a lot lower than they were in 2019.

Some of the biggest chains have made drastic changes this year: McDonald’s has eliminated its All Day Breakfast (maybe forever), Taco Bell took all potatoes off its menu, Wendy’s finally got back into breakfast, and Burger King has done a bunch of experiments with its classic Whopper.

Hungry yet?