This might seem obvious, given that its drive-thrus have grown so long that some cities are considering declaring them a public nuisance, but the average Chick-fil-A makes a lot of money.
In 2021, in fact, a typical stand-alone Chick-fil-A outside of the mall generated more than $8.1 million in revenues. That’s up 14.8% from the year before, according to data from the company’s most recent Franchise Disclosure Documents.
What’s more, it continued a remarkably strong run for the Atlanta-based company. Over the past five years, volumes for those units have soared 54%, according to data from its FDDs.
Chick-fil-A non-mall average unit volume
Source: Company franchise disclosure documents
To be sure, it’s not necessarily fair to simply break out restaurants designed for drive-thru sales, particularly at a chain that has a number of locations in malls and airports. But even when including those sales, its average unit volumes were $5.9 million in 2021.
That number is tops among major fast-food chains. And only 25 chains of all types, all but one of them full-service restaurants, can beat Chick-fil-A’s overall average unit volume.
But break it out by those non-mall locations and it bests even the super-sized units operated by the hot dog and Italian beef chain Portillo’s. In fact, among the Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report, only nine other chains best Chick-fil-A’s stand-alone average unit volumes.
And all the chains that beat Chick-fil-A’s stand-alone volumes are large-scale casual-dining or upscale restaurants. Check out this graphic.
Average unit volumes
Source: Technomic, Franchise Disclosure Documents
Chick-fil-A’s growth has been driven more by rising average unit volumes than it has by unit growth. It generates more total sales than any chain outside of McDonald’s and Starbucks. Yet 19 other chains in the Top 500 operate more total locations than Chick-fil-A’s 2,700. No chain in the Top 10 has fewer locations.
“They’re so small compared to everyone else,” said Kevin Schimpf, director of research and insights for Technomic, Restaurant Business' sister company. “They’re doing this with such a small location count.”
Stronger unit volumes are particularly helpful for Chick-fil-A because it enables its operators to make more money. Chick-fil-A is a franchise in only the barest legal sense—it uses an operator partner model in which operators split profits with the brand after funding costs for buildout.
It’s not as if the brand hasn’t been adding locations in the U.S. It has. Unit count has grown by more than 30% over the past five years, on par with Popeyes, which operates a similar number of restaurants.
The combination of strong, steady unit growth and other-worldly unit-volume growth has had a remarkable impact on the chain’s total growth.
Chick-fil-A U.S. system sales by year
Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report
Other major fast-food chains have opted to focus more on unit volumes. McDonald’s, the third largest chain by location count, slowed its restaurant growth, then began closing locations, opting for fewer stand-alone units that made more money and charged customers based on convenience. Its average unit volumes have risen by a third over the past five years while unit count has dropped 5%.
But Chick-fil-A is generating these rapidly growing volumes while building more locations. The simple answer comes down to demand. Demand for Chick-fil-A’s chicken sandwiches has been increasing at a rate much higher than the chain can—or will—build locations. That may be a result of the company’s methodical approach to selecting franchisees who operate the chain’s restaurants. Or maybe it’s because of that methodical approach that its sales have grown so much.
“Their focus on service, they’re second to none,” Technomic Managing Principal Joe Pawlak said. “Their products are excellent. They’re consistent. They just have that winning formula.
“I don’t know there’s anything that’s going to stop Chick-fil-A. It’s a brand that’s just so strong.”
It remains to be seen how long the chain can keep this up, however. Its stand-alone volumes have been helped along by intense demand for its drive-thrus. Price increases have also played a role. For now, however, Chick-fil-A is in a league of its own.
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