Ever wonder which fast food restaurant is the largest out of the thousands of fast food restaurants in the world? It seems like a simple question but as it turns out it can get quite complicated. The problem with providing a simple answer primarily has to do with the fact that term ‘largest’ or ‘biggest’ can mean different things to different people. And, of course, with economies in flux and businesses ever-changing the largest this year can easily be de-throned at any time.
The fast food industry is a distinctly American invention. Most think that fast food restaurants really came into style in the 1950’s when Ray Kroc joined McDonald’s as a franchise agent and proceeded to purchase the chain from the McDonald brothers. The truth is that restaurants such as White Castle, A&W and Horn & Hardart are just some of the fast food restaurants that preceded McDonalds. It is true however, that Ray Kroc is primarily responsible for the McDonalds success story and is largely credited with creating the blueprint for what would become known as the fast food franchise business model. One area that McDonalds aggressively pursued was expansion into global markets. As a result, McDonalds as well as its competitors earn much of their revenues from markets outside the US.
We think that when people ask the question: “What is the largest fast food restaurant?” they are generally asking either 1) which brand has the most locations or 2) which company has the most revenue/sales. As it turns out the lists are slightly different and can change based on which countries are included in the tabulation.
The top fast food companies in the U.S. by number of locations are:
According to publicly traded McDonald’s the company has approximately 38,000 locations worldwide operating in over 100 countries, with the majority of its locations being franchised.
The number of Subway restaurants operational worldwide has reduced since the pandemic and as of April 2022, there are 36,900 Subway locations in 104 countries.
Starbucks had approximately 35,711 locations worldwide. The company operates in over 80 countries, with the majority of its locations being company-owned.
As of 2022, there were about 25,000 KFC outlets in 147 countries and territories in the world.
As of 2022, Burger King has over 18,700 locations worldwide in over 100 countries
Domino’s Pizza operated a total of 18,848 restaurants worldwide in 2021
In 2021 there were 18,381 Pizza Hut’s worldwide
The company has more than 13,100 restaurants in 41 countries worldwide.
Taco Bell operated a total of 7,791 restaurants in 31 different countries worldwide in 2021
Wendy’s has 6,949 locations in 30 countries
The reason many lists focus on the number of locations is because things can get complicated when trying to compare sales figures. Many of the top companies are public companies that run off of the franchise business model and these companies report their sales figures differently than a private company does. McDonalds, for instance, reports about $22B in revenue which is a different figure than how much food is sold which is often called its system-wide sales numbers. McDonalds, as a corporation does not bring in the majority of its revenues by selling burgers and fries but rather through rental agreements, royalties and franchise fees. Still the McDonalds brand that most people know today does indeed sell more fast food than any other restaurant company.
The top fast food companies in the U.S. by revenue (2021 estimates by QSR Magazine) are:
McDonald’s – $46.0 billion
Starbucks – $24.3 billion
Chick-fil-A – $16.7 billion
Taco Bell – $12.6 billion
Wendy’s – $11.1 billion
Dunkin’ Donuts – $10.4 billion
Burger King – $10.0 billion
Subway – $9.4 billion
Domino’s Pizza – $8.6 billion
Chipotle – $7.5 billion
Just because one a company has a lot of locations that doesn’t necessarily mean that the business is more efficient or desirable. In fact a one key industry metric outlines “Average Sales per Store” and Subway – which is often called the largest fast food chain – performs dismally in that area. The average Subway location brings in a little over $416,000 per year in sales compared to industry leader Chick-Fil-A which has a whopping $4,090,000. sales per unit.
There’s a bunch of other ways to carve up these lists. The restaurant professionals no longer favor the term “fast food restaurants” rather they are called Quick Service Restaurant, or QSR. Just above the QSR segment you will find the “Fast Casual” restaurant chains. Increasingly there is a blurring of the lines between QSR and Fast Casual so we expect that these “largest/biggest” as well as “Most popular” and “Best..” lists will be fluid as different restaurant companies try to find their place in the marketplace.
As always, these rankings can vary depending on the source of information and the date when the data was collected. You will sometimes see Yum Brands mentioned as the second largest fast food company. Yum, which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, is the global leader of the chicken, Mexican-style food, and pizza categories respectively. It’s also the world’s largest restaurant company in terms of system units, with over 50,000 restaurants in more than 150 countries and territories. One stat that seems indisputable however is that McDonald’s is by far the largest fast food chain in terms of revenue and market share.
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