Technomic Top 500

The 15 top-selling US fast food chains

Wendy's is pushing past Burger King and Subway.
Wendy's is pushing past Burger King and Subway.

The bottom line is a system sales loss of 8.2 percent compared to the previous year of 2019, meaning that the Corona year 2020 has also left its mark on the 500 largest restaurant chains in the United States. However, the losses are very unevenly distributed. This is shown in the Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report by market research firm Technomic.

Total sales for the top 500 fell by more than $27 billion (USD), a year-over-year decline of 8.2 percent. Still, 95 of the 500 restaurant chains saw year-over-year sales increases, while 405 posted sales declines. For comparison: In the foodservice top 100 ranking of the largest German restaurant companies, the difference in sales in 2020 compared to the previous year was almost 30 percent. So at least the big ones in the industry have come through the crisis much more gently in the USA.

It is striking that gains and losses differ greatly between limited and full-service concepts. For example, full-service sales fell by 28.6 percent, while the decline for limited service was only 1.9 percent.

Top 15 US restaurant chains 2020

Quelle: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report
R.Company/BrandSales '20+/- '19U.S. Units+/- '19
4Taco Bell11,290,0%6.7990,5%
6Burger King9,66-5,4%7.081-3,6%
10Chipotle Mexican Grill5,926,5%2.7245,6%
11Sonic Drive-In5,6821,2%3.5260,0%
12Pizza Hut5,44-2,2%6.561-10,2%
13Panera Bread5,35-10,5%2.106-2,3%
15Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen4,5920,3%2.6085,3%

Unit network shrinks

Cumulatively, the top 500 represent $304 billion in sales. That represents about 65 percent of total foodservice sales in the U.S., according to Technomic. The fact that this figure increased from 57 percent in the pandemic year to 8 percent in 2019 shows: The large chains came through the pandemic more smoothly than smaller players or independent restaurants. Their already strong influence on the U.S. restaurant market has continued to grow. 

By contrast, the pandemic year of 2020 saw the number of stores in the top 500 drop for the first time in years of expansion: the number of units declined by 2 percent, or nearly 4,500 fewer locations in absolute numbers than in 2019. Again, fullservice was hit harder. Technomic counts 4.1 percent fewer full-service restaurants compared to last year.

Drive-thru windows valuable in crisis

As in Germany, delivery and drive-through offerings were among the sales drivers during the crisis. Thanks primarily to their drive-throughs, McDonald's, Chick-fil-A and Wendy's, for example, recorded an increase in sales. Sonic Drive-in reported one of the strongest years in its history with a sales increase of 21 percent.

Delivery-focused concepts such as Wingstop, Domino's and Papa John's posted double-digit gains. The most successful menu categories included chicken products and pizza.

Wendy's overtakes Burger King

There was also a shift in power among the largest companies. Among the biggest winners was Wendy's. Driven in part by a new breakfast offering, according to Technomic, Wendy's managed to increas sales by 4.8 percent from 2019. That is even a higher number than the 4.2 percent sales growth in 2019 compared to 2018. This means Wendy's will overtake players Burger King and Subway in absolute sales in 2020, taking  5th place in the Top 500 ranking.