Among QSRs, the big get bigger

Led by Chick-fil-A, the largest fast-food chains extended their dominance.
Photograph courtesy of Chick-Fil-A

top 500

Quick-service restaurant chains are fighting for a stagnant market. And in recent years, that fight has been won by the chains with the biggest guns. The 10 largest fast-food chains in Technomic’s Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report—McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway, Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A, Burger King, Wendy’s, Dunkin’, Domino’s and Pizza Hut—together accounted for 90% of the sector’s growth in 2018. 

Still, quick-service restaurant chains are not adding new units. The fast-food chains in the Top 500 together account for 170,000 units, up by just 440 from the year before. That has forced companies to focus on generating same-store sales and traffic, something that has been increasingly difficult in recent years. But Technomic data shows that it’s been far easier for the largest operators.

Many of these large chains have used their considerable marketing and financial strength to gain advantages over their rivals, while filling more of consumers’ demands for convenience. As a whole, the 150 quick-service chains in the Top 500 grew sales by 3.1%, or $5.9 billion. But the typical QSR chain in that group only increased sales by 1.1%. The top 10 grew sales by 4.7% on average. The other 140 chains increased sales by an average of 0.8%. “In the fight for market share, some will succeed and others won’t,” McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook said in January. “We intend to keep positioning McDonald’s on the winning side.”

The chain is doing just that with Easterbrook at the helm, with its $38.5 billion in system sales last year once again making it the largest restaurant chain in the world. It’s so large that, on its own, it accounted for nearly 20% of all Top 500 QSR sales in 2018.

It keeps that dominant spot by not only embracing industry trends, but also by setting them. In 2017, McDonald’s jumped head-first into delivery, using its market presence to negotiate a favorable deal with Uber Eats, enabling it to expand delivery into 9,000 of its 14,000 restaurants. In 2018, the company vowed to remodel all of its restaurants in the U.S. by 2020, committing $6 billion between itself and its operators to get the job done—essentially using its financial muscle to upgrade all of its restaurants in a relatively short period.

Yum Brands similarly flexed its financial muscle last year: The owner of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut jumped on the delivery bandwagon with a $200 million investment in online ordering provider Grubhub. The company received a favorable fee rate from the provider and is integrating the service into the POS systems at Taco Bell and KFC, both of which have quickly expanded delivery into more than half of their restaurants. Later in the year, the company acquired another online ordering company, QuikOrder, to improve the capabilities of its Pizza Hut brand.

Smaller and midsized chains can’t match those kinds of investments. “I actually think we’ve underplayed and underleveraged the scale that we have at Yum,” Yum CEO Greg Creed said at the company’s Analyst Day event in December. “I actually think we’re just recognizing the power of what scale can be to us.”

To be sure, size hardly guaranteed growth last year. Sales fell 3.6%, to $10.4 billion, last year for Subway, the third-largest chain in the U.S. Pizza Hut, which had been struggling with falling sales, grew by just 0.3% to $5.5 billion. And it fell out of the Top 10, to No. 11.

But there’s also Chick-fil-A, which has become a top-five chain despite being closed on Sundays. Its sales rose 13.5% last year, to $10.2 billion. Taco Bell, meanwhile, increased sales 5.8%, to $10.4 billion. Sales at No. 2 Starbucks rose 8.3%, to $19.7 billion. 

And plenty of smaller and midsized chains did well. Smoothie concept Tropical Smoothie Cafe (No. 88) generated $473 million last year, up 20.3%. And No. 97 Smoothie King wasn’t far behind, with $416 million in sales, up 10.4%.

But there were also troubled concepts, such as No. 229 Quiznos. The free-falling sandwich chain declined by 18.4% last year and generated just $139.5 million in U.S. system sales. At one point, it was a nearly $2 billion chain and operated almost 5,000 locations. At the end of 2018, its unit count was down to just over 300. 

Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report

Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.


Exclusive Content


Some McDonald's customers are doubling up on the discounts

The Bottom Line: In some markets, customers can get the fast-food chain's $5 value meal for $4. The situation illustrates a key rule in the restaurant business: Customers are savvy and will find loopholes.


Ignore the Red Lobster problem. Sale-leasebacks are not all that bad

The decade-old sale-leaseback at the seafood chain has raised questions about the practice. But experts say it remains a legitimate financing option for operators when done correctly.


The restaurant M&A market was tough, and then came the bankruptcies

The market for restaurant mergers and acquisitions has been slow for more than two years. But that market is bifurcated, as good deals get done and opportunistic buyers snap up low-priced chains.


More from our partners