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Here are the country’s biggest burger chains

While consumers have been flocking to chicken concepts, burgers remain a major draw and chains serving them have thrived since the pandemic, according to the Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report.
Photograph courtesy of Whataburger

Americans still like burgers.

While so much focus these past two years has been on chicken—and for good reason—the most consistent performing item on restaurant menus remains the hamburger. Data from the Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report proves that, yet again.

Limited-service burger chains generated $97 billion in sales last year, up 13% since the pandemic. While that is a lower rate than fast-food chicken concepts (up 28% since 2019), it nevertheless represents an additional $11 billion worth of counter-service burgers and fries.

Much of that came from the largest chains. Some of the biggest and most successful restaurant chains in the U.S. specialize in burgers. Giant McDonald’s, for instance, increased sales by $5.5 billion alone over the past two years. Wendy’s increased sales by $1.3 billion and Sonic by $1.1 billion.

At the same time, there are many high-growth chains in the business. Wahlburgers, the burger-centric concept created by the Wahlberg clan of Mark and Donnie fame, has seen sales double over the past two years thanks to deals such as the one with the Hy-Vee grocery store chain.

And there are several up-and-coming chains that continue to generate sales growth and lure customers. That includes concepts such as Freddy’s Frozen Custard (sales up 42%) and the Wisconsin-based Culver’s (up 39%).

Fastest growing burger chains since 2019

Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report

Many of these brands recovered more quickly from the pandemic than others because of their heavy use of drive-thrus. Many of them continued to grow into 2021 as consumers continued dining out at higher rates, flush with cash from stimulus checks and not spending money on other things like vacations.

“On March 12 (2020) all our dining rooms closed,” Culver’s Co-founder Craig Culver said in an interview. “All of us were freaking out wondering what the heck we were going to do now.

“Fortunately, we had a drive-thru. They had to learn a new way to do business. And we did a lot of business. We had a record year in 2020. We finished with comp sales up 6%. That carried over into 2021. We had a year like no other, with comp sales up 19%.”

It isn’t just concepts with drive-thrus, however. Five Guys, the fast-casual burger chain, has quietly had a strong pandemic, up 26% since 2019, including 23% growth last year.

The Virginia-based chain of customizable burgers generated nearly $2.1 billion in system sales and is the country’s eighth-largest burger concept, just ahead of Hardee’s.

Not everyone has enjoyed a strong pandemic, however. The burger chain Steak n Shake’s sales are down 14% since 2019 while slider concept Krystal is down 11%. Smashburger, which emerged with Five Guys amid the fast-casual burger craze coming out of the Great Recession, is down 17%.

Fuddruckers, the burger chain whose parent company, Luby’s, just liquidated its holdings, is down 38%.

Yet for the most part, it was good to be a burger-focused chain during the pandemic and coming out of it.

10 largest fast-food burger chains

Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report

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