Top 20 Best American Fast Food Chains
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Top 20 Best American Fast Food Chains

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
America runs on these fast food chains. For this list, we'll be looking at the most beloved fast food chains in the United States. Our countdown includes Dunkin' Donuts, Chipotle, Burger King, Domino's, Popeyes, and more!
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America runs on these fast food chains. For this list, we’ll be looking at the most beloved fast food chains in the United States. Our countdown includes Dunkin' Donuts, Chipotle, Burger King, Domino's, Popeyes, and more! Which of these is your go-to? Let us know in the comments!

#20: A&W Restaurants


Originally founded in Lodi, California, A&W got its start as a simple roadside stand over a century ago. Hotelier Roy W. Allen set up shop at a local parade and sold his unique root beer for five cents a glass. His employee Frank Wright partnered up with him, and A&W was born. The franchise spread and became known for its frosty mugs, which are essentially frozen glass mugs filled with the chain’s delicious root beer. Today, it has over 600 locations in the United States, and its revenue in 2020 was $330 million.

#19: Panera Bread


Common sense suggests that fast food isn’t healthy food … but Panera Bread challenges that notion. While this chain is primarily known for its baked goods, it also offers sandwiches, pasta, and soups. The chain has carved itself out a nice little niche in the fast food market, offering healthier options than most and a sit-down experience. For many years, Panera Bread was actually the best-performing restaurant stock. While the chain has been slapped with numerous lawsuits over the years, its clean menu and unique experience has kept customers coming back for more.

#18: Jack in the Box


Headquartered in San Diego and primarily serving the west coast, Jack in the Box is famous for its delicious tacos, which are frozen and then deep fried at the restaurants. The company sells over 550 million tacos a year, making it their most popular product by far. The chain also offers some unique sides such as egg rolls. Jack in the Box has over 2,000 locations throughout the United States, and in 2020 it posted an impressive revenue of $1 billion. Even though this chain is mostly relegated to the west coast and Texas, it’s clearly very popular.

#17: Popeyes


Serving as KFC’s main competitor, Popeyes is a fried chicken chain based out of Louisiana. The restaurant serves all the basics, including fried chicken and chicken sandwiches. But what makes this chain unique is its southern flair. Aside from its chicken, the chain serves unique items such as Cajun fries, biscuits, and red beans and rice. In 2019, Popeyes began selling its iconic chicken sandwich, which launched what’s hilariously known as the Chicken Sandwich Wars. Essentially, the sandwich was such a monumental success that other fast food chains made their own version to capitalize on the trend. Popeyes’ impact on the industry can’t be overstated.

#16: Cinnabon


At this point, Cinnabon has become synonymous with cinnamon rolls. If you're hankering for a roll, chances are you’re going straight to one of these mall kiosks. Based out of Georgia, Cinnabon has found itself a unique place in the fast food market. It mostly sells baked goods, and rather than individual restaurants, Cinnabon runs out of kiosks that are found in areas with high foot traffic. In fact, the very first Cinnabon was opened in a Washington mall, and it only served its world-famous cinnamon roll concocted by Seattle baker Jerilyn Brusseau. Its menu has since expanded, but everyone still returns for those warm, gooey balls of deliciousness.

#15: SONIC


For those looking to capture the ‘50s experience, Sonic is your place. The main attraction of Sonic are the carhops that deliver food to your vehicle. This tradition was quite popular throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, but rapidly declined once drive-thrus became standardized. This unique service has helped Sonic become a fast food icon. It has over 3,500 locations throughout the United States and brought in over $4.6 billion in revenue in 2020. This may have been aided by the Covid-19 pandemic, as its carhop system weathered restaurant closures and social distancing measures. Put simply, there’s no other fast food chain quite like Sonic.

#14: Little Caesars


A pizza chain founded and headquartered in Detroit, Little Caesars is currently the third-largest pizza chain in the United States. With over 4,000 locations throughout the country, Little Caesars did nearly $4 billion in revenue in 2020. The chain is primarily known for its Hot-N-Ready pizzas, which help it stand out from its myriad competitors. Unlike other pizza chains that require special orders, Little Caesars offers entire pizzas at a cheap price that are immediately ready for carry-out. No ordering over the phone, and no waiting 10 or 15 minutes for the pizza to cook. Just walk in and the pizza is sitting there, hot and steaming and ready to eat.

#13: Carl's Jr.


Fun fact: Carl’s Jr. got its unique name because it was a smaller version of an existing restaurant. Truck driver Carl Karcher and his wife Margaret opened a restaurant called Carl's Drive-In Barbecue in Anaheim, and when the chain expanded, it was shortened to Carl’s Jr. While the quality of the food is high (especially the Western Bacon Cheeseburger), the impact of Carl’s Jr. is somewhat hindered by its limited reach. There are just over 1,000 locations in the United States, and 60% of them are in California. The others are sprinkled throughout the southwest, so everyone else is out of luck. However, the food is so delicious that Carl’s Jr. has transcended its limited scope.

#12: Chipotle


One of the OG fast casual chains, Chipotle opened in 1993 and immediately became known for its unique style and delicious Mexican cuisine. Chipotle has just five items, but each is amazing and well worth trying. Another thing separating Chipotle from its competitors is its serving of alcohol; aside from the typical soft drinks, Chipotle restaurants also sell margaritas and beer. Unfortunately, Chipotle has run into controversies related to food safety, data breaches, firings, and child labor violations. But it's obvious that Americans can’t get enough of the tacos and burrito bowls, as Chipotle boasted over $5.5 billion in revenue in 2019.

#11: Dunkin' Donuts


While it’s now officially called just Dunkin’, this chain may forever be known as Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s one of the largest donut chains in the entire world, with nearly 13,000 locations across 42 countries. Of those, over 9,000 are in the United States. Unlike some other chains on this list, Dunkin’ is primarily found on the east coast, with 15% of all restaurants located in New York. World renowned for its donuts and coffee, Dunkin’ Donuts posted a revenue of $1.3 billion in 2019, which certainly isn’t bad considering its relatively inexpensive products. It is the go-to American chain on cold, wintery mornings.

#10: Chick-fil-A


It’s the largest chicken sandwich chain in the United States and the third-largest fast food company. In the early 2010s, Chick-fil-A weathered considerable controversy over its opposition towards same-sex marriage. The restaurant chain remains popular however, and in 2016 Chick-fil-A was the highest-selling fast food chain in the US, grossing nearly $5 million per restaurant while only being open six days a week. By the end of 2019, Chick-fil-A had 2,470 locations in the US and made a very impressive $11 billion in revenue. Its sandwich continues to rank highly in the Chicken Sandwich Wars.

#9: Pizza Hut


This is more of a casual dining experience than fast food, but take-out options have become increasingly popular throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Pizza Hut is the world’s largest pizza chain, with over 18,700 locations by the end of 2019. Of those, about 6,600 are found in the United States. Aside from its restaurant experience, Pizza Hut has become renowned for its stuffed crust pizza, which sees the pizza crusts packed with mozzarella cheese. Operating since 1958, it is easily the go-to sit down pizza restaurant.Pizza Hut has been an American tradition for half a century.

#8: Wendy's


As the third-largest hamburger chain in the world, Wendy’s needs no introduction. The restaurant boasts over 6,700 locations across the globe, with almost 6,000 of those being in the United States alone. Despite opening in 1969, which isn’t that long ago compared to some of the other heavy-hitters, Wendy’s is in all 50 US states. The chain has become an icon of American culture, with many of its items becoming mainstays across the country. They include the signature burgers with fresh, square patties; the heart attack-inducing Baconator; and of course, the refreshing Frosty. You can’t really go wrong at Wendy’s.

#7: Domino’s


There is one pizza joint that dominates the fast food market, and that is Domino’s. This chain has mastered the art of take-out pizza and has around 6,500 locations scattered across the United States. Domino’s is the most successful pizza chain in the world based on sales, and in 2020 it made over $8 billion in revenue just in the US. Domino’s also came back from defeat in 2009, when a survey from Brand Keys revealed that Domino’s came last in a nationwide taste test, prompting a complete reinvention of the brand’s pizza. It worked, and Domino’s saw a 14% quarterly gain in the following year. Domino’s listens, and that has made it the most successful pizza chain in the world.

#6: Subway


This world-famous chain was founded by a teenager named Fred DeLuca in 1965, and began franchising in ‘74. Since that time, Subway has expanded to become the second-largest fast food chain in the world, with over 37,000 locations and $16 billion in annual revenue. Approximately 21,200 of those restaurants are found in the United States. The success of Subway can largely be attributed to its variety. The options are endless, with unique customization available, from the bread to the sauce. It’s a genius strategy, as it keeps customers coming back for more and trying different combinations. Its success was bolstered by the $5 footlong campaign, easily Subway’s most famous promotion. Unfortunately, although it was discontinued in 2018.

#5: Taco Bell


This fast food chain that is seemingly immune to all criticism. Regardless of all the jokes, memes, and regrets after the fact, Taco Bell just keeps chugging along. Taco Bell has long dominated the Mexican fast food industry, offering tacos, burritos, and various novelty items. The restaurant is relatively inexpensive compared to its competitors, and customers get a lot of food for their dollars. Furthermore, their novelty items like the Doritos Locos Tacos and breakfast waffle tacos were unique inventions that quickly went viral. Taco Bell has mastered both fast food and social media marketing, ensuring incredible success.

#4: KFC


No one knows what it is, but that KFC seasoning is just magical. KFC has long dominated the fried chicken market, having been franchised since the early ‘50s. In fact, KFC is credited with turning fried chicken into a fast food item, and the franchise directly challenged the hamburger-based market of the time. And while it has expanded its menu, the fried chicken remains the cornerstone of the franchise. Colonel Sanders is an American icon, and KFC is the second-most successful fast food chain in the world based on sales; in 2020, it made nearly $28 billion in revenue. The recipe is a closely-guarded trade secret for a reason…

#3: Burger King


Founded in the early ‘50s, Burger King has long been an American institution. Many people consider the Golden Age of Burger King to be the 1970s, as it dominated the fast food market and had a strong advertising campaign. Its success was revitalized in the early 2000s thanks to The King character, who has since become a recognizable piece of American pop culture. Of course, the food itself is also killer, with the world-renowned Whopper leading the pack. In 2002, it claimed to have sold 1.7 billion Whoppers in a single year. All hail the king.

#2: Starbucks


Even though it’s a coffeehouse, Starbucks has been veering more and more into fast food in recent years. Aside from its world-famous coffee and drinks, Starbucks is now offering baked goods, sandwiches, wraps, and protein boxes. Starbucks is easily the world’s largest coffeehouse chain, with close to 34,000 locations across the globe and over 15,000 in the United States. Starbucks made over $23 billion in revenue in 2020 and is largely credited with popularizing coffee culture in the US. Heck, even their Pumpkin Spice Latte single handedly kickstarted the pumpkin spice craze that dominates the country every fall. When it comes to cultural influence, no other fast food chain beats Starbucks.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Panda Express

Chinese Mall Food with Amazing Orange Chicken

In-N-Out Burger

A Very Popular West Coast Chain with High Quality Burgers

Arby’s

Known Worldwide for Their Roast Beef Sandwiches

Papa John's Pizza

The Fourth Largest Pizza Chain in the US

Dairy Queen

Easily the Most Popular Fast Food Ice Cream Chain

#1: McDonald’s


This is the fast food chain to end all fast food chains, and it is instantly recognized the world over. Virtually everything about McDonald’s is popular, from its mascot to its golden arches to its menu, which includes heavy hitters like the Quarter Pounder, Chicken McNuggets, and of course, the Big Mac. It has also found a way to cater to every demographic. Its Playplace and Happy Meals help convert children, and its cheap breakfasts are a favorite of adults. To absolutely no one’s surprise, McDonald’s is by far the most prolific fast food chain in the world, with almost 40,000 restaurants dotting the globe. Try as other chains might, there’s simply no toppling the arches.
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