Top 20 Fast Food Chains You Can Invest In (By Restaurant Sales)

Written by: Shirley Cao
Last Updated by Ailen Faiad: May 14, 2024
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In this article, we are going to rank the top 20 fast food franchises in 2022 based on restaurant sales. More specifically looking at the average unit volume (AUV) across the top-performing franchise systems. Each of the franchises on our top 20 list have existing restaurants for sale and/or opportunity to develop in the United States and abroad!

We even added 5 additional fast food restaurant brands that are not (or no longer) franchises in the United States but still fan favorites at Vetted Biz.


Top 20 Fast Food Restaurant (Franchises)


Avg. Restaurant Sales: $6.1 Million

Due to the pandemic, packed Chick-fil-A can be seen everywhere. Of the brand’s 1,836 U.S. free-standing restaurants outside of malls (those open and operated for at least a full calendar year, from a total of 2,023), average annual sales volumes clocked in at $8.1 million last year, with 849 of those, or 46 percent, producing figures at or above. Even for stores without a drive-thru, their AUV reached $3.2 million last year. Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A has been expanding, growing by 155 locations nationwide last year. Additionally, its revenue climbed to $5.8 billion, well ahead of the $4.3 billion it appreciated in 2020 and $3.8 billion the year prior.

Although you can’t own 100% of a franchise, you can manage one or two locations and invest just $10,000 for 50% of the profits. There are Chick-Fil-A operators making $500,000+ based on their $10,000 investment (and lots of hours at the location!).


Avg. Restaurant Sales: $3.6 Million

Whataburger is an American regional fast food restaurant chain that opened in 1950, headquartered and based in San Antonio, Texas, that specializes in hamburgers. Last year, it expanded by 29 locations and kept building for the future. It significantly changed the benefits for its employees and the company pushed their salaries to at least $100,000. The San Antonio-based chain gave staff more than $90 million in bonuses during COVID (as of March) and extreme weather events.

You are required to have at least $5M in liquid assets and $12.5M in net worth. You are also required to develop a minimum of 5 restaurants. Your investment required to just open one location is 300X a Chick-Fil-A. The good news is you own 100% of the restaurant and might be able to exit for significant profits one day.


Avg. Restaurant Sales: $3.4 Million

McDonald’s system-wide sales bumped 21 percent to more than $112 billion—a new high mark in company history. Domestically, McDonald’s same-store sales climbed 13.8 percent against a 0.4 percent lap in 2020. Despite its continued growth in operating income, McDonald’s digital sales surpassed $18 billion. In some, digital accounts for more than 50% of sales, including China and France. Delivery also ballooned to more than 33,000 restaurants in 100 countries.


Avg. Restaurant Sales: $3.1 Million

Culver Franchising System, LLC, doing business as Culver’s, is a privately owned and operated American casual fast food restaurant chain that operates primarily in the Midwestern United States. Since its founding in 1984, there has been one thing missing from Culver’s 850-unit fleet: a food truck. That changed in May as the legacy brand took to the road for a 17-city tour featuring the first mobile Culver’s. This has helped boost the performance of Culver’s. The chain’s systemwide U.S. sales were $1.73 billion at the end of 2019, which then lifted to $1.986 billion in 2020 and $2.489 billion last year.

Very few Culver’s have closed over its 35+ year history. An option to look at especially for real estate developers wanting to own and develop the land. There are large REIT (real estate investment funds) willing to buy the building/ land at a significant premium to development costs.


Krispy Kreme

Avg. Restaurant Sales: $3 Million

Krispy Kreme, Inc. is an American multinational doughnut company and coffeehouse chain. In July 2021, Krispy Kreme became publicly traded again on the Nasdaq. For the year, net revenue grew 23.4 percent to $1.38 billion, while organic revenue lifted 12.5 percent to $1.24 billion. Previously, Krispy Kreme leveraged a wholesale business that distributed older, discounted products. Since doughnuts are now fresher, the chain has more room to price, meaning higher profit. Currently, Krispy Kreme operates in more than 30 countries and it plans to expand to at least three new countries. Krispy Kreme has also made use of e-commerce, where it earned $134 million in e-commerce revenue in 2021, a growth of 15% compared to 2020.

They are mostly growing through corporately owned and operated locations so be on the look out for competing directly with the franchisor.

Panera Bread

Avg. Restaurant Sales: $2.7 Million

Panera Bread Company is an American chain store of bakery-café fast-casual restaurants with over 2,000 locations, all of which are in the United States and Canada. Panera Bread also adapted to the digital revolution where guests can wait in line, use a digital kiosk, pick up their takeout meal, or order a contactless dine-in meal. This new adaptation not has helped Panera Bread attract more customers but also decrease the initial cost of investment.

To become a Panera Area Developer in 2022, you have to meet the following criteria:

– Experience as a multi-unit restaurant operator

– Net worth of $7.5 million

– Liquid assets of $3 million

– Real estate experience in the market to be developed

– Cultural fit and a passion for fresh bread (who doesn’t like bread :))



Avg. Restaurant Sales: $2.5 Million

Zaxby’s is an American chain of fast-casual restaurants offering chicken wings, chicken fingers, sandwiches, and salads. The chain operates primarily in the Southern United States and has more than 900 locations. Most of Zaxby’s restaurants are owned by franchisees. Although it is rebuilding its C-suite, its AUV rose to almost $2.5 million in 2021, up from $2.2 million in 2020.

The initial investment ranges from $500,000 to $1,000,000 for a Zaxby’s restaurant. We estimate a fast payback period for Zaxby’s in under 4 years.

Panda Express

Avg. Restaurant Sales: $2.1 Million

Panda Express is an American fast-food restaurant chain that serves American Chinese cuisine. With over 2,200 locations, it is the largest Asian-segment restaurant chain in the United States, where it was founded, and is mainly located in North America and Asia. After its introduction of the meatless orange chicken in 2021, Panda Express doubled down its partnership with Beyond Meat to produce more of the products to serve a variety of customers.

The franchised/ licensed locations of Panda Express mostly operate in airports and non-traditional locations. They also perform significantly worse than the corporately owned and managed locations (estimated AUV closer to $1M). It might be best to allow the billionaire owners of Panda Express to continue to do their thing…

El Pollo Loco

Avg. Restaurant Sales:: $2 Million

El Pollo Loco is the name of two independent restaurant chains that specialize in Mexican-style grilled chicken. With a new CEO, El Pollo Loco is moving forward with aggressive franchise growth in new markets. Meanwhile, El Pollo is widening its efforts to include larger, multi-concept franchisees as a part of the expansion.


Avg. Restaurant Sales: $1.9 Million

Bojangles OpCo, LLC., doing business as Bojangles, is an American regional chain of fast food restaurants that specializes in cajun-seasoned fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits that primarily serve the Southeastern United States with approximately 770 stores. Additionally, Bojangles is taking $1.9 million AUVs through one of the quick service’s fastest-growing segments in chicken. To continue to expand, Bojangles signed a development deal with longtime franchisee Jeff Rigsby to open 45 stores in the next seven years.


Avg. Restaurant Sales: $1.9 Million 

Last year, Wendy’s delivered 121 new restaurants, including the opening of Wendy’s first U.K. restaurants and its 1000th international store. As Wendy’s tacks on new units, it’s also reimaged about 75% of its 7,000 locations globally, and the revenues climbed 6.2% to $488.6 million.

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

Avg. Restaurant Sales: $1.8 Million 

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. is an American multinational chain of fried chicken fast food restaurants that was formed in 1972 in New Orleans, Louisiana, and headquartered in Miami. Last year, AUV rose some $400,000 to $1.8 million, and new menu launches, combined with nuggets, and mac and cheese. Last year, Popeyes opened 208 stores in the U.S. and Canada, which brought its total to above 3,000 restaurants. In addition, Popeyes’ more traditional, freestanding footprint will lean heavily on double drive-thrus this coming calendar.

McAlister’s Deli

Avg. Restaurant Sales: $1.8 Million

McAlister’s Deli is an American chain of fast-casual restaurants founded in 1989 in Oxford, Mississippi, by retired dentist Dr. Don Newcomb. Last year, it saw $869 million in systemwide sales and they believed it is capable of reaching $1 billion by 2024. The brand also crossed 500 domestic units last year, which was opened by its largest franchisee, David Blackburn of Southern Rock Restaurants. McAlister also applied digital technology to better serve the customers.

Jack In the Box

Avg. Restaurant Sales: $1.8 Million

Jack in the Box is an American fast-food restaurant chain founded in 1951. The chain has over 2,200 locations, primarily serving the West Coast of the United States. Last year, Jack in the Box just completed a $585 million M&A deal by acquiring 600-unit Del Taco. Since launching a franchise-led expansion strategy in mid-2021, the burger brand has sealed 50 agreements consisting of more than 200 restaurants—the most commitments in Jack’s 71-year history.


Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers

Avg. Restaurant Sales: $1.8 Million

Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers is an American fast-casual restaurant chain based in Wichita, Kansas. Last year, Freddy’s posted another stellar, notching a 17.8 percent increase in systemwide sales, year-over-year. It also opened 32 new restaurants, including debut units in New Jersey and Wisconsin. In Q1 2022, Freddy’s signed six new multi-unit agreements (for 64 stores) and opened 11 locations.

Taco Bell

Avg. Restaurant Sales: $1.8 Million

Taco Bell is an American-based chain of fast food restaurants founded in 1962 by Glen Bell in Downey, California. Now, Taco Bell is a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, Inc. Last year was the time when Taco Bell expanded its international market and added more than 160 net new units on a base of 600 coming into the year. Taco Bell’s domestic digital sales rose nearly 20% as its parent company pushed a record $22 billion.

Sonic Drive-In

Avg. Restaurant Sales: $1.6 Million

Sonic Drive-In is an American drive-in fast food restaurant chain owned by Inspire Brands, the parent company of Arby’s and Buffalo Wild Wings. Last year, Sonic turned in the best two-year same-store sales performance of the fleet at 25.8%. Its carhop-style, car-picnic-ready setup was ideally matched for a COVID climate. Sonic has also adapted to a digital infrastructure to secure a leadership role in quick-service personalization.


Avg. Restaurant Sales: $1.6 Million

Wingstop Inc. is an American multinational chain of aviation-themed restaurants specializing in chicken wings. Although it was during COVID, the company has experienced its best years as a public company. The U.S. same-store sales increased 8% year-over-year and 29.4% on a two-year basis. AUV rose to $1.6 million, digital beyond 60%, and opened 193 net stores!


Del Taco

Avg. Restaurant Sales: $1.5 Million

Del Taco Restaurants, Inc. is an American fast-food restaurant chain that specializes in American-style Mexican cuisine as well as American foods such as burgers, fries, and shakes. During the COVID, Del Taco tried to boost its sales by deploying the new Fresh Flex prototype, which features two drive-thrus that leverage digital menu boards. Del Taco signed 9 deals last year for 68 restaurants in 10 states. Another major change to the chain was its acquisition by Jack in the Box for $585 million, creating a multi-brand platform with more than 2,800 restaurants!

Five Guys

Avge Restaurant Sales: $1.5 Million

Five Guys Enterprises LLC is an American fast food restaurant chain focused on hamburgers, hot dogs, and French fries, and headquartered in Lorton, Virginia, part of Fairfax County. At the end of 2021, it already has 1,390 restaurants, a net gain of 8 restaurants. Systemwide sales rose from $1.7 billion to nearly $2.1 billion.

Top Fast Food Restaurant Chains (non-franchised)

You can not own one of these businesses but you might be able to apply for a manager/ executive position or even invest in their stock (Shake Shack & Chipotle).

franchise specialist

Shake Shack

Avg. Restaurant Sales: $3.5 Million 

Shake Shack is an American fast casual restaurant chain based in New York City. Since its founding, it has been one of the fastest-growing food chains, eventually becoming a public company filing for an initial public offering of stock in late 2014, and it has operations in more than 250 countries. Despite the mandatory closure during the pandemic, Shake Shack’s overall systemwide sales of $ 1.1 billion marked the highest figure in company history. Similar to Krispy Kreme, Shake Shack made full use of e-commerce by attracting customers through app and web applications.

With over 2 times the AUV compared to rival, Five Guys, Shake Shack has secured its position as the top ‘better burger’ restaurant globally.

In-n-Out Burger

Avg. Restaurant Sales: $3.7 Million 

In-n-Out Burger is an American regional chain of fast food restaurants with locations primarily in California and the Southwest. Given its drive-thru base, it is no surprise that its growth remained steady across the pandemic. Although it added 11 stores from 2019 to 2022, it remained content to scale regionally and feed one of the sector’s true cult followings. The footprint is significantly larger than most concepts at 3,500+ square feet.

Interested in developing and owning the real estate for an In-n-Out Burger? Check out our recent article on In-n-Out Burger here.


Avg. Restaurant Sales: $2.6 Million 

Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., often known simply as Chipotle, is an American chain of fast-casual restaurants in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and France, specializing in bowls, tacos, and Mission burritos that are made to order in front of the customer. Last year, the chain’s full-year sales hit $3.4 billion, which is approximately three-and-half times what Chipotle reported in 2019. More importantly, its loyal members increased from 8.5 million in 2020 to 26 million in 2021.

White Castle 

Avg. Restaurant Sales: $1.8 Million

White Castle is an American regional hamburger restaurant chain, with its greatest presence in the Midwest and New York metropolitan area. Founded on September 13, 1921, in Wichita, Kansas, it has been generally credited as the world’s first fast-food hamburger chain and it was its 100th birthday last year! It first expanded to Florida and opened its largest location in Orlando. Last year, its classic product, The Original Slider and Cheese Slider surpassed $28 billion in sales.

Be sure to check out ALL franchise brands that have opened in the United States of the past 30 years through our franchise search function.

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