Wendy’s dethrones Burger King but Five Guys grows fastest

A Wendy's employee in Ohio. The chain narrowly edged out rival Burger King in sales, but both still lag McDonald's.
(Terry Gilliam / AP Photo)

The restaurant industry’s royal line of succession has shifted, with Wendy’s usurping Burger King as the second-largest sales-getter behind McDonald’s.

In its annual ranking of U.S. restaurants, research group Technomic Inc. placed McDonald’s – with its 5.5% boost to $34.2 billion in annual sales – first among the 500 largest eatery chains in the country.

Next came Subway, which grew 7.5% over the year and then Starbuck’s, whose sales spiked the same percentage. Wendy’s placed fourth, with $8.5 billion in sales, followed by Burger King’s $8.4 billion.

Burger King’s restaurant count still far outstrips Wendy’s.

Both companies have undergone identity crises in recent years, with product revamps, management shuffles and marketing shakeups.

Overall, Technomic said restaurant sales were up 3.4% in 2011, compared with a paltry-by-comparison 1.8% boost the previous year. In dollars, that’s a $242 billion haul, up more than $8 billion from 2010. Technomic’s figures reflect sales from company-owned and franchised establishments but don’t reflect corporate revenue.


International markets were more favorable than domestic customers, with sales abroad up 6.4% compared with 3.4% in the U.S. Food service companies such as Yum Brands, which owns KFC and Taco Bell, have recently pushed heavily abroad into countries such as China, where a growing base of customers hungers for American-style fast food.

Limited-service chains, which include fast food and fast casual eateries, enjoyed a 3.7% sales bump. The latter category saw blockbuster performance, with Panera Bread Co. clocking a 10.1% boost, Chipotle Mexican Grill soaring 23.4% and Five Guys Burgers and Fries – the fastest-growing chain – seeing a 32.8% improvement.

Chicken wings establishments were also rapidly expanding, with Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar and Wingstop earning spots among the 10 fastest-growing chains. According to Technomic, 36% of restaurants (a still-increasing number) now offer wings.

Other companies on the list of fast growers include Yard House, Firehouse Subs, BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse and Noodles & Co. Together, the 10 chains made $8.2 billion in sales – 22% more than they did in 2010.

Full-service restaurants had a more mellow year, with a 2.8% increase in sales after a flat 2010. Seafood and steak eateries were healthiest overall, with Red Lobster’s sales jumping 6.2% and LongHorn Steakhouses’ figures up 13.1%.


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