The Most Profitable Fast-Food Chains in the U.S.
America's most profitable fast-food chains have revolutionized the industry, leveraging innovation and consumer preferences to achieve remarkable financial success.
From introducing iconic menu offerings and fresh ingredients to innovative delivery methods and great customer service, these chains have set new standards for profitability in the fast-food world.
Year founded: 1952
Systemwide sales: $5.1 billion
Total units: 3,918
Note: The data for this ranking was sourced from the August 2023 QSR 50 report, which lists fast-food restaurants by U.S. system-wide sales for 2022.
Bottom Line: KFC
KFC has had its ups and downs over the decades, but it's still holding strong in regard to profit. It's a massive success overseas, even going as far as becoming a Christmas tradition in Japan.
Stateside, the company has had to add to and change the menu a bit to keep up with the fast-food Joneses. In 2021, it introduced its chicken sandwich to great success and recently began selling nuggets. In the first eight weeks the nuggets were available, the company sold a whopping 100 million of them!
14. Panda Express
Year founded: 1983
Systemwide sales: $5.15 billion
Total units: 2,393
Bottom Line: Panda Express
The only option for eating Chinese on this list comes courtesy of Panda Express. By offering a menu that combines familiar Chinese flavors with quick-service convenience, the company appeals to a broad spectrum of diners.
The brand's focus on freshness, with food prepared in small batches throughout the day, ensures that customers receive flavorful and satisfying meals. Its orange chicken dish is always a favorite.
13. Sonic Drive-In
Year founded: 1953
Systemwide sales: $5.499 billion
Total units: 3,546
Bottom Line: Sonic Drive-In
Sonic Drive-In leans into the days of the car hop. This and its diverse menu offerings make it a favorite among patrons who want to enjoy a meal from the comfort of their cars.
The brand's emphasis on friendly customer service and Happy Hour promotions have helped make Sonic a popular choice for a quick, fun bite. Plus, its drinks are some of the best in the biz.
12. Pizza Hut
Year founded: 1958
Systemwide sales: $5.5 billion
Total units: 6,561
Bottom Line: Pizza Hut
You may remember going to Pizza Hut with your family on a Friday night — while there's plenty of nostalgia for the chain the way it was, it has admittedly lost its mojo over the past few years. But luckily for pizza lovers, the chain is here to stay.
Its new menu items — Melt sandwiches and Big New Yorker pizza — are a hit with patrons, both young and old. The brand also ramped up its delivery business with third-party vendors.
11. Panera Bread
Year founded: 1987
Systemwide sales: $6.79 billion
Total units: 2,102
Bottom Line: Panera Bread
Despite being a fast-food chain, Panera is more of sit-down restaurant than most others on this list. Its success stems from a blend of quality and variety — the chain prioritizes fresh ingredients and offers a diverse menu that spans from salads to pastries, appealing to a wide range of tastes.
Additionally, the company's commitment to community engagement, transparency in nutritional information and effective marketing have solidified its brand.
Year founded: 1993
Systemwide sales: $8.6 billion
Total units: 3,129
Bottom Line: Chipotle
Patrons flock to Chipotle because it serves “food with integrity,” according to founder Steve Ells, who coined the phrase. While it has a limited menu, Chipotle is committed to serving fresh food that is ethically and naturally sourced. To further this idea, the company announced a non-GMO policy in 2013.
While Chipotle's stock has dropped a little (10 percent) in recent months, it is still nevertheless going strong.
Year founded: 1960
Systemwide sales: $8.75 billion
Total units: 6,686
Bottom Line: Domino's
Domino's is the biggest pizza chain in the world, far surpassing older companies like Pizza Hut for the simple reason that it was always just a pizza-delivery company. In other words, no one goes to eat at a Domino's.
Convenience and reliability (getting your piping hot pizza to you in half an hour or less) is what Domino's is all about.
8. Burger King
Year founded: 1954
Systemwide sales: $10.28 billion
Total units: 7,043
Bottom Line: Burger King
Burger King is still one of the top fast-food companies in the world, despite its problems in the U.S. In fact, much of its success (about 60 percent) is from stores in other countries.
While sales are going up Stateside, the burger chain is still not meeting expectations as quickly as stockholders would like. However, its attempts to modernize its stores and promotions are working. The Whopper Jr. Duo value offer and the Spiderverse Whopper are bringing in new and younger customers.
Year founded: 1965
Systemwide sales: $10.37 billion
Total units: 20,576
Bottom Line: Subway
While Subway is still one of the top 10 most profitable fast-food companies, it has been struggling with its image for the best decade or so. Modernizing its menu and storefronts, however, seems to be working, and as of October 2022, business is booming.
The Subway Series menu has also been streamlined to speed up service and promote online/app orders, which seems to be another reason why Subway continues to attract consumers.
Year founded: 1950
Systemwide sales: $11.28 billion
Total units: 9,370
Bottom Line: Dunkin'
Everyone loves donuts, and Dunkin' has a variety of flavors as well as delicious breakfast sandwiches and coffee, earning it a dedicated fanbase across the globe. Its coffee is so popular that it can even be found in supermarkets from coast to coast.
To further add to the bottom line, the company is now creating spiked drinks — Dunkin’ Spiked Iced Coffees and Iced Teas will come in a total of eight flavors and are available as of fall 2023.
Year founded: 1969
Systemwide sales: $11.69 billion
Total units: 5,994
Bottom Line: Wendy's
You know you're business has done something right when it's gone viral from a meme. "Sir, this is a Wendy's" is a catchphrase often used online after a rant to denote that no one is listening.
But what's driving Wendy's growth these past few years is its breakfast and late-night eats. CEO Todd Penegor revealed the restaurant had its highest quarterly breakfast sales yet due to its extremely successful $3 croissant promotion in March 2023.
Regarding its late-night menu, Penegor said, "[It] is a big opportunity for us. It is highly incremental, adding business we don’t have today. It’s a strong category that’s been growing consistently for the last couple of years, and we’re well-positioned to compete with our made-to-order, great food. The piece we really like is it continues to drive sales without adding labor, so it’s really margin accretive to the bottom line."
4. Taco Bell
Year founded: 1962
Systemwide sales: $13.85 billion
Total units: 7,198
Bottom Line: Taco Bell
Say hello to the top Mexican food chain on our list. Taco Bell's dollar menu has always had legions of fans, and the CFO of Yum! Brands (Taco Bell's parent company), Christ Turner, feels the chain is headed for McDonald's status.
“We have good breakfast and lunch business. But if you compare it to a couple of our competitors, if we could get the same penetration as lunch as they have, there’s $1 million per-store opportunity there."
Year founded: 1946
Systemwide sales: $18.81 billion
Total units: 2,837
Bottom Line: Chick-fil-A
Despite being founded earlier than most of the restaurants on this list, Chick-fil-A is a recent addition to the fast-food pantheon, and it's doing very well.
In 2022, revenue for the chain increased by 12.8 percent from a year earlier, according to Nation's Restaurant News Top 500 report, and its restaurants make more money per location than any other chain.
Year founded: 1971
Systemwide sales: $28.1 billion
Total units: 15,873
Bottom Line: Starbucks
Coffee is king in the U.S., and Starbucks is at the top of the heap. The company has changed the way we think about fast food.
As you already know, its most popular menu items are its drinks, but the chain has expanded its food menus, too. The Java giant is leaning more toward drive-thru services than ever before — Target is now adding its cafes and curbside pickup service to more than 1,700 stores nationwide. That means there will be even more locations for getting your caffeine fix.
Year founded: 1955
Systemwide sales: $48.73 billion
Total units: 13,444
Bottom Line: McDonald's
Sure, McDonald's has gone through tough times in the past few years, largely due to the pandemic and changing consumer tastes, but it is still top dog in the fast-food world. After all, this burger chain features favorites loved by multiple generations. (Has anyone ever topped McDonald's french fries?)
The Golden Arches is also heavily invested in celebrity and film collabs, the most recent beingtheAs Featured In Meal, a variety of fan-favorite items that have made appearances in TV, film or music to promote Marvel Studios' "Loki" for Disney Plus.