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Top 500: What's driving and deterring growth?

See the trends that defined this year’s ranking as well as the chains that grew and shrunk the most.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Compared to the crisis the industry is facing now, more routine challenges such as labor, rent and traffic probably seem like pieces of cake. Nonetheless, the Top 500 highest-grossing restaurant chains put up a fight against those obstacles in 2019, too, notching their best overall sales growth in five years. Here are some of the factors contributing to that growth as well as hindering it. Scroll down to see which chains saw the largest sales increases and largest declines. 

The big chains—for better and worse

Overall Top 500 sales grew by 4.2% in 2019, the largest increase since 2015. That success is largely a result of the stability of the very biggest chains: McDonald’s, Starbucks and Chick-fil-A all saw sales increase, said Kevin Schimpf of Technomic. That pattern holds for individual dining segments, too. Good years from Chipotle and Panera drove fast-casual sales to 7.4% growth. And poor performances by casual-dining stalwarts Applebee’s and TGI Fridays contributed to the continual slowdown in that segment, which grew sales just 1.4%

One-time pops

Singular events such as Popeyes’ chicken sandwich and the boom in third-party delivery helped lift overall Top 500 sales. “You’re probably not gonna see those kinds of wins again in 2020,” said Schimpf.

Digital advances

Chains that added mobile ordering, third-party delivery and other digital advancements saw an impact on their bottom lines. McDonald’s, which has spent billions to upgrade its technology with developments such as drive-thru boards that can suggest items, recorded its best sales growth since 2011. Chipotle doubled down on digital ordering and also saw sales soar in 2019.

Plant-based proteins

Faux meat was the year’s biggest menu trend, with chains of all sizes adding plant-based analogues of burgers, breakfast sandwiches, chicken and more. In fact, so many chains ended up on the bandwagon that only early adopters likely saw a benefit, said Schimpf. As soon as everyone got it on their menu, the impact gets diluted and you just lose that bounce pretty quickly,” he said.

Top 10 sales increases / Top 250 chains

 Chain nameYOY sales change %2019 U.S. sales ($000,000)2019 AUV ($000)Top 500 rank
1Chicken Salad Chick39.5% $153  $1,251 215
2Metro Diner36.3% $171*  $2,515* 201
3First Watch35.1% $558  $1,685 82
4Shake Shack31.8% $623  $4,090 71
5Walk-On's Sports Bistreaux27.8% $134  $4,790 236
6Mission BBQ25% $136* $1,660*235
7Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers23.8% $1,466  $3,525 42
8MOD Pizza23.8% $484  $1,180 93
9Tropical Smoothie Cafe21.8% $577  $740 77
10Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar21.3% $213  $6,800 166

Top 10 sales increases / Next 250 chains

 Chainn nameYOY sales change %2019 U.S. sales ($000,000)2019 AUV ($000)Top 500 rank
1110 Grill58.8% $77  $3,270 369
2Flower Child54.6% $51* $2,475* 498
3CoreLife Eatery49% $78* $1,480* 365
4Mendocino Farms40.6% $54*  $1,930* 482
5Cava40.6% $120*  $1,480* 256
6North Italia40.2% $92*  $4,830* 326
7Dig38.1% $52*  $1,770* 493
8Poke Bar35.8% $71*  $855* 395
9Panini Kabob Grill34.5% $73  $4,295 382
10Blue Bottle Coffee34.4% $55*  $855* 473

Largest sales declines / Top 250 chains

 Chain nameYOY sales change %2019 U.S. sales ($000,000)2019 AUV ($000)Top 500 rank
1Houlihan's-21.2 $143*  $2,625* 230
2Old Country Buffet/HomeTown Buffet-18.8 $143*  $2,500* 231
3Fuddruckers-15.8 $185*  $1,260* 183
4McCormick & Schmick's-15.6 $158* $4,150* 212
5Friendly's-15.3 $210*  $1,175* 168

Largest sales declines / Next 250 chains

 Chain NameYOY sales change %2019 U.S. Sales ($000,000)2019 AUV ($000)Top 500 rank
1Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery-31.3 $62*  $2,250* 429
2Kona Grill-30.5 $113*  $3,525* 269
3Papa Gino's Pizzeria-26.8 $72*  $770* 390
4Marie Callender's Restaurant & Bakery-25.2 $90*  $2,275* 336
5Chevys Fresh Mex-21.3 $60*  $2,500* 440

Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report; *Technomic estimate

Learn more about Technomic’s Top 500.

See the Top 250 chains.

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