There are 100,383 chain restaurants in America, according to IBIS World, but some are more successful than others. Some of these chains are exclusively company-owned, while others rely on franchises to make their millions. The most popular chains brought in more than $1 billion in revenue in 2020– but not without challenges.
These are the most popular restaurant chains in America in 2020, according to data collected by Restaurant Business, ranked by national sales. See which chains came out on top.
Burger chain Whataburger opened its first restaurant in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1950. Today it has more than 824 locations across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and the southern United States and has an estimated revenue of $2 billion.
Whataburger restaurants feature its distinct orange and white striped roofs, inspired by the original location’s orange-and-white A-frame roof. Favorites on the menu include “Whataburger”, “Whataburger Jr.”, “Justaburger”, and its fish sandwich, the “Whatacatch”.
Americans love steak but we want the Bloomin’ Onion too. That’s why Outback Steakhouse has made the list of the most popular restaurant chains in America. The Australian-style menu that includes steaks, burgers, and seafood provides generous portions that leave diners feeling satisfied and like they got their money’s worth.
The steakhouse chain has over 1,000 locations that brought in an estimated $1.7 billion dollars in revenue in 2020. That’s a lot of Bloomin’ Onions!
It’s hard to believe that Papa John’s pizza chain started out of a closet! “Papa” John Schnatter decided to sell pizza to the customers of his father’s tavern in Jefferson, Indiana. He converted one of the closets in the tavern into a pizza kitchen and sold his ’71 Camaro to afford the equipment.
That was in 1984– today the restaurant chain has an incredible 5,199 locations and brings in $1.81 billion in revenue in 2020, according to Statista. Papa John’s is also the creator of dipping sauce specifically for pizza crust.
Open anytime, Denny’s diner restaurant chains can be spotted off highways across America. Where else can you get breakfast, lunch, or dinner around the clock? The chain started as a 24-hour “Danny’s Donuts” in Lakewood, California. Somewhere along the way, it was changed to “Denny’s”.
Today there are 1,700 Denny’s locations in the U.S., with most of them being franchisee-owned. Although its revenue took a massive hit in 2020, the popular diner isn’t going anywhere, bringing in an approximate annual revenue of $288.6 million according to Statista.
At IHOP, diners are greeted with a variety of syrup pitchers waiting for them at their table– who doesn’t like that? The International House of Pancakes offers big-portioned breakfast items and bottomless hot coffee.
99% of IHOP’s 1,841 locations are run by independent franchisees, but no matter where you go you can expect a hot stack of pancakes. While the restaurant chain has employed several marketing strategies to promote their lesser-known lunch and dinner menu, they don’t have any problem bringing in customers with an approximate annual revenue of $2.25 billion, according to Statista.
Jack In The Box
With more than 2,200 Jack in the Box locations across the U.S., there’s bound to be one close to you. It’s a quick stop to pick up all of the American fast-food favorites, including chicken tenders, french fries, and cheeseburgers. The menu even includes tacos and egg rolls, too.
Founded in San Diego in 1951, Jack in the Box was the first major restaurant chain to focus on drive-thru business and innovated the way the two-way intercom was used for customers to place orders.
Chili’s Grill & Bar
Founded in Texas, Chili’s Grill & Bar has been operating since 1975. The restaurant chain is known for its affordable American and Tex-Mex menu items. They once served breakfast but realized it was better to stick with its most popular meals instead, and in September of 2018, discontinued their breakfast menu.
Some of their most popular menu items include the mango-chile chicken and Caribbean salad with seared shrimp, giving diners some healthy options to choose from. There are more than 1,606 Chili’s locations worldwide, making it likely that there’s one near you.
Buffalo Wild Wings
With chicken wings being so popular in America (chicken wing food delivery orders went up 287% in 2020!) it’s a given that if done right, a chicken wings restaurant chain would be hugely successful. Buffalo Wild Wings proved that to be true.
The American casual dining restaurant chain brought in $3.669 billion in revenue in 2020 with more than 1,238 locations across the 50 states. Not only do they have delicious wings in a wide variety of flavors but they always have the game on.
Burgers and soft-serve ice cream are two favorite American foods and you can always find them at Dairy Queen. The ice cream and burger joint quickly became a popular hangout for teens and kids, especially in small towns in the Midwestern and Southern states.
Dairy Queen opened its first location in Joliet, Illinois in 1940 and has more than 4,455 locations across the U.S. today. Since its beginnings, the restaurant chain has operated as a franchise system which helped them to quickly grow to 2,600 locations by 1955.
Already the third-largest pizza chain in America, Little Caesars became even more popular with the rise in food delivery apps. The chain even created its own mobile app for customers to conveniently place their orders and pick them up.
Known for their affordable $5 pizzas, there are Little Caesars locations in every state across America and the chain is growing! Little Caesars is making a push to open more locations in the New York metro area with at least a dozen franchise locations ready to open soon.
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
In August 2019, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen added a chicken sandwich to their menu that set off a craze. Customers waited in line for more than 30 minutes to try it, and by the end of the month, they were sold out of the popular menu item.
But Popeyes was favored by customers long before they announced the chicken sandwich. It has more than 3,102 restaurant locations in more than 40 states, making them the second-largest chicken restaurant chain in America.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Of course a list of the most popular restaurant chains in America wouldn’t be complete without KFC! By sales numbers, Kentucky Fried Chicken is the second-largest restaurant chain in the world, and one of the most popular in America.
Colonel Sanders’ seasoning recipe is a trade secret, a combination of 11 herbs and spices that chicken lovers can’t get enough of. After opening 600 locations by 1963, KFC proved that Americans want their chain restaurants to specialize in something other than burgers!
Arby’s is the second-largest sandwich chain in America and has the slogan, “We have the meats”. Founded in 1964, today Arby’s has more than 3,472 restaurant locations. Surprisingly, the company is partially owned by Wendy’s!
Aside from their popular deli-style sandwiches, Arby’s menu features gyros and some restaurant locations even serve breakfast. Although Arby’s doesn’t spend as much money on marketing as some of its competitors, their loyal customers keep coming back for more.
With more than 2,200 locations, Panda Express is the largest chain restaurant in America that specializes in Asian food. Once recognized as the quick and easy Chinese restaurant you’d find in the food court, Panda Express proved itself to be more than just food you eat at the mall.
Panda Express has over 2,000 locations and annual sales of $3.5 billion in 2019. It doesn’t look like any other Asian segment restaurant chain will close in on Panda Express anytime soon!
Jack In The Box
If there’s a Jack in the Box down the street from you, you’re not alone. The popular restaurant chain has more than 2,200 locations! While the restaurant focuses on promoting their burgers, the most popular menu item is tacos, surprisingly enough.
Although they’re not known for their fresh ingredients (the tacos are actually assembled in Kansas or Texas then fried in the restaurant!) Jack in the Box’s loyal customers will keep coming back. In February 2021, the restaurant chain reported that they had their best quarter earnings of the last 27 years in the fourth quarter of 2020, with sales rising 12.5%.
Although Applebee’s saw profits decline in 2020, the popular restaurant chain isn’t going anywhere soon. Since the ’90s, Applebee’s has been one of the largest sit-down restaurant chains in the country. There are more than 1,787 Applebee’s locations in the US with only 69 of those locations being owned by the company, while the rest are franchises.
When business is down, you can expect Applebee’s to make up for it with promotional deals like their “Dollarita” drink menu, where featured drinks cost just a buck. That promotion, in particular, saw four consecutive quarters of growth after struggling sales numbers.
Unlike many of the other popular restaurant chains on this list, Panera Bread does not franchise. All 2,160 Panera Bread locations are company-owned, opening restaurants in the locations that have the best market potential instead.
Customers are drawn to Panera’s promise of fresh ingredients with transparent nutrition information. They also offer free Wi-Fi hotspots to customers, and were once the largest provider of free Wi-Fi in the United States! From 1997 until 2017, when it was a public company, Panera had the best performing stock of any restaurant.
Delivery and carry-out for same-store sales at Pizza Hut climbed in 2020, increasing by 21% in the third quarter. The restaurant chain could have seen their profits climb even higher had they not invested in so many dine-in locations, which they have plans to close.
Customers’ eating habits have changed since the restaurant chain first opened in 1958. Instead of sitting down in the restaurant to eat their pizza, customers are preferring to enjoy their pizza at home. Regardless of where customers are eating their slices, Pizza Hut remains the world’s largest pizza chain by volume, with 18,703 locations.
If you thought the other restaurant chains on this list had a lot of locations, that’s nothing compared to Sonic! The American drive-in fast-food chain has an incredible 3,494 locations across 46 states.
Recognized for its carhop servers on skates, customers head to Sonic Drive-In for its original drinks and milkshakes including Cherry Limeade, Ocean Water, and Strawberry Cheesecake Blast. Other popular menu items include mozzarella sticks, the classic cheeseburger, and jumbo popcorn chicken.
If you want a large steak, Texas Roadhouse will do you right. The steakhouse chain restaurant opened its first location in 1993, but not in the Lone Star state! The first Texas Roadhouse appeared in Clarksville, Indiana, followed by Gainesville, Florida. Today there are 611 locations across 49 U.S. states, offering a menu where everything is made to order.
This restaurant chain is a people-pleaser with a wide range of options including steak, ribs, chicken, and seafood. Their salad dressings are made from scratch and each table is given free dinner bread rolls with honey cinnamon butter and a bucket of peanuts.
Americans can’t get enough of Olive Garden. With a menu filled with delicious pastas and a basket of bottomless breadsticks, you can’t go wrong. The restaurant chain crushes their competition. In 2010, Olive Garden raked in $3.3 billion in sales. Behind them was Carrabba’s Italian Grill, which brought in just a portion of that at $650.5 million.
After profits declined in 2012, an activist hedge fund that acquired a significant portion of Olive Garden’s stock and gave a 294-slide presentation on all of the ways that Olive Garden was losing money, ranging from putting salt in its pasta water that decreases the lifespan of pots to menu items that don’t make sense, like vegetable lasagna topped with chicken. Yet, they remain one of the most popular restaurant chains in the US with an estimated $4.01 billion dollars in revenue in 2020.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
After McDonald’s became a major investor of Chipotle Mexican Grill in 1998, the fast-casual chain took off. It grew from 16 restaurants to 500 in just 7 years. Today there are more than 2,000 Chipotle locations across the US.
Although the restaurant chain has had its fair share of struggles, from the 2017 norovirus outbreak to data breaches, the chain remains extremely successful. In 2020, Chipotle restaurants brought in an estimated $6 billion in revenue, rising 7.1% from 2019.
Domino’s pizza came out of 2020 just fine. The pizza chain champion ended the fiscal year with an estimated $4.12 billion dollars in revenue, up from $3.62 billion the following year. This continues Domino’s steady growth over the last 15 years, which is nothing short of impressive.
The restaurant chain was ranked fourth in the world for quickest service and used to have a 30-minute guarantee for customers to receive their order, until too many of its drivers became a road hazard by speeding to make it on time. Domino’s positioned itself ahead of the game with its
Although Subway had a challenging 2020, they remain one of the most popular chain restaurants in America. While RestaurantBusinessOnline and Insider both reported that Subway closed at least 2,200 locations in 2020, or 10% of its restaurants, a representative replied that it was “lower than your estimate”. In 2019, they closed 1,000.
Even if that’s true, Subway has more locations than any other restaurant chain on the planet, boasting 40,000 locations to order a sub sandwich. According to RestaurantBusinessOnline, Subway brought in $10.2 billion dollars in sales in 2019.
Revenue for Dunkin’ Donuts fell in 2020, causing the chain to close 800 locations, 450 of which were within Speedway chain gas stations. Still, the chain remains one of the most successful in the country with the slogan “America runs on Dunkin'”.
The popular donut and coffee chain announced on October 31, 2020, that it was selling Dunkin’ Brands Group Inc. to private equity-backed company Inspire Brands for a whopping $11.3 billion.
Near the top of the list of the most popular restaurant chains in America is Burger King. Founded in 1953, the burger chain has more than 12,000 locations. Inventor of the Whopper, Burger King primarily targets the male demographic with their marketing campaigns and sizable portions.
In 2020, Burger King brought in $1.6 billion dollars in revenue. That’s a 10 percent decrease from 2019, but still pins the restaurant chain as one of the most successful.
In 2020, Wendy’s brought in $1.73 billion dollars in revenue– not too shabby for a burger joint that got started in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Wendy’s became the third-largest hamburger fast-food chain in 2018 and remains one of the most popular chain restaurants in America.
Famous for its signature square hamburgers, sea salt fries, and Frosty soft serve, the majority of Wendy’s 6,711 locations are franchises. Not much has changed since Wendy’s beginnings, but that’s just fine with its customers!
Taco Bell brought in an estimated $11 billion in 2020, according to Entrepreneur– that’s near twice as much as Chipotle. The Mexican restaurant chain has a loyal customer following who are always excited about the new menu options Taco Bell introduces.
While the chain experienced some challenges in the 2010s, fighting lawsuits and correcting business practices, Taco Bell came back with a bang. After a 15-year hiatus, the chain made it back into the top 10 of the Franchise 500, placing #8.
Chick-Fil-A’s sales increased in 2020 from the previous year by half a billion dollars, continuing the trend of increased revenue from 2018 to 2019 by 26.7 percent, according to a Chick-Fil-A news release.
With chicken sandwiches booming in popularity in the U.S., Chick-Fil-A became one of the top three most popular chain restaurants, bringing in $4.3 billion dollars in revenue in 2020. The company has made several adjustments over the years that’s helped its success. The chain used to be called “Dwarf Grill” and primarily served breakfast.
Although Starbucks’ annual revenue declined by 27.7% in 2020 from the previous year, the coffee giant still brought in $19.16 billion dollars in revenue. Before 2020, Starbucks’ revenue had increased year-over-year for 10 years, so you shouldn’t worry about too many of their 18,354 U.S. locations closing.
Not only is Starbucks one of the top chains in the country, but it also made the list of Fortune 500 companies, placing 114th and 288th on the Forbes Global 2000.
In 2020, McDonald’s made out with $19.21 billion dollars in revenue, an incredible number by any standard. Like other top restaurant chains on the list, McDonald’s saw a decrease in revenue from the previous year.
The restaurant released a statement saying, “2020 will be remembered as one of McDonald’s most challenging, yet inspiring moments in our long history. The resilience of the McDonald’s System was on display…” The statement also pointed to marketing their core menu items to customers as part of its success.