America’s Most Successful Restaurant Chains

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It’s no secret that 2020 was a tough year for the restaurant industry. Restaurants are built around the idea of conviviality — eating and drinking as a social activity in close quarters in a shared space. This was impossible to provide for most places for most of last year.

While chain operations and independents alike pivoted to takeout and delivery services whenever possible in response to COVID-19 restrictions, many suffered catastrophic losses; many disappeared forever. (These were the saddest restaurant closings of 2020.)

The top food service trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN) publishes an annual ranking of the most successful restaurant chains — fast food and otherwise — according to domestic systemwide sales. Data is sourced through an NRN partnership with the food industry research and data company Datassential and their proprietary Firefly database. In previous years, the chain ranking has included only 200 companies; this year, for the first time, it covers 500. 

When 24/7 Tempo reviewed the top 50 chains in the ranking, the effects of the pandemic became clear. For the full 500, NRN reports, overall domestic sales fell 4.3%, from $319 billion in 2019 to $305.1 billion last year. It’s clear from the particulars, however, that establishments built around sit-down dining rooms fared worse overall than those already geared to a grab-and-go business model. (For last year’s rankings, from a different restaurant trade publication, compare the present list with 2019’s most successful restaurant chains in America.)

For instance, Red Robin, Cheesecake Factory, and Applebee’s all recorded drops of more than 25% last year over 2019. Meanwhile, Domino’s was up 11% and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen saw sales soar by 20%. Even many chains that showed losses, however, still managed to maintain their place in the top 50.

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