The bigger a restaurant chain, the more difficult it gets to maintain fast growth. It’s simple math, and usually means the fastest growing concepts are almost always smaller chains that can combine unit growth with same-store sales increases.
2020 turned that truism on its head. Of the 10 fastest growing chains last year, according to the Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report, seven were among the 61 largest chains in the U.S. Four were in the Top 10.
By contrast, only one of the 25 fastest growing chains in 2019 (Shake Shack) was in the Top 100. And only six of the 50 fastest growing chains in 2019 was in the Top 100.
In short, it was easier to be bigger last year because such chains had strong delivery, drive-thru and takeout strategies, well-known brand names and strong marketing budgets. And with growth rates down for the industry overall, bigger chains stood out even more.
Here are the 10 fastest growing chains in the U.S., starting with No. 10:
10. Jersey Mike’s
2020 U.S. system sales: $1.6 billion (up 19.6%)
Overall rank: 40
Jersey Mike’s, the 1,854-unit sub chain, has been on something of a tear of late with a combination of unit growth and sales strength. Unit count grew by more than 11% last year and the concept still generated sales growth even when many of its sandwich competitors struggled—notably larger rivals Jimmy John’s and Subway.
9. Tropical Smoothie Café
2020 U.S. system sales: $694 million (up 19.7%)
Overall rank: 58
Tropical Smoothie may be one of the more underappreciated growth stories in the U.S. and earns its way among the fastest-growing concepts with 19.7% growth. Yet that was an actual slowdown—it generated nearly 22% sales growth in 2019. People keep eating more smoothies, apparently.
8. Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers
2020 U.S. system sales: $643 million (up 20%)
Overall rank: 61
Freddy’s has quietly moved its way up the ranking of the largest restaurant chains in the U.S. It has been generating increasingly strong growth with its drive-thru focused concept. This is why the chain was just sold to Thompson Street Capital.
7. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
2020 U.S. system sales: $4.6 billion (up 20.3%)
Overall rank: 15
Oddly enough, Popeyes isn’t the largest chain among the 10 fastest-growing concepts. Its 2020 was driven in part by the incredible popularity of its chicken sandwich, introduced in late 2019 and the impetus behind a more than $1 billion increase in system sales. But Popeyes wasn’t just a chicken sandwich. Consumers replaced their dinners with large orders of chicken last year.
6. Ono Hawaiian BBQ
2020 U.S. system sales: $146 million
Overall rank: 179
Ok, this is more traditional. The California-based Ono, a 96-unit fast-casual brand that operates Hawaiian-style barbecue restaurants, added seven more locations last year but largely grew through strong sales growth in 2020. Its system sales have nearly doubled over the past five years, according to Technomic.
5. Pizza Guys
2020 U.S. system sales: $70.4 million (up 20.8%)
Overall rank: 324
The 71-unit takeout and delivery pizza chain, based in California, was helped with strong demand for pizza last year—its average unit volumes rose 16%, according to Technomic, and it added three locations. But it is not the fastest-growing pizza chain from last year.
4. Marco’s Pizza
2020 U.S. system sales: $760 million (up 21%)
Overall rank: 54
The fastest-growing pizza chain was not some small concept and neither was it Domino’s and Papa John’s (though both of those are among the 17 fastest growing chains). It was the Toledo, Ohio-based Marco’s, which operates more than 950 locations and is now eyeing Papa Murphy’s to become the fifth largest pizza chain in the U.S.
3. Sonic Drive-In
2020 U.S. system sales: $5.7 billion (up 21.2%)
Overall rank: 11
Sonic had a really good year in 2020, strong enough to have leapfrogged both Pizza Hut and Panera Bread. The chain did it entirely through same-store sales—unit count was flat in 2020. With consumers refusing to leave their cars, Sonic’s drive-ins proved to be the perfect option.
2. Teriyaki Madness
2020 U.S. system sales: $51 million (Up 24%)
Overall rank: 404
Teriyaki Madness opened up a fair number of restaurants last year. The chain has been growing aggressively through franchising, and its operators added 33 locations despite the pandemic in 2020, bringing it a total of 96. But unit volumes for the Denver-based chain of Asian-themed fast-casual restaurants fell nearly 28%.
2020 U.S. system sales: $1.8 billion (up 31%)
Overall rank: 33
Let’s talk about Wingstop for a moment. In 2020 we all basically lived in Wingstop’s world. It was the fastest-growing chain in the U.S., spawned a bunch of new competitors and kept on going so far in 2021. It grew units by more than 10% last year and generated ridiculous same-store sales as consumers gobbled up wings. But as we said before, it was not just a pandemic phenomenon. Wingstop’s system sales grew by 19% in 2019. In just two years the chain has grown by more than 50%, or $600 million.