The average American household spends $3,000 a year on eating out. But where are they eating? Local delicacies are surely a fan-favorite, but there is something comforting about pulling up to a McDonald's drive thru and knowing exactly what you want and how it will taste, without even looking at the menu. This comfort and consistent quality is exactly why franchises are so successful. A franchise allows independent investors to become part of a bigger company, so the investor can use the company’s name, branding, and business model. But most importantly, a franchise owner can capture a pre-determined audience. Typically, franchises are associated with fast food restaurants since franchises exploded with the rise of fast food in the ‘50s and ‘60s – but you’ll see that there are franchise sit-down restaurants who are also receiving international acclaim.
But which franchises are the best? Who has mastered the expansion game and won the hearts of North Americans?
We created a list of the top 20 North American franchises of 2023 to answer this exact question. And, as a sneak peak, 19 out of the 20 have expanded internationally. Place your guess now for which franchise is not international, but has managed to explode across the USA with a whopping 9,000 locations.
Before we begin our list, let's establish the criteria we used to create it.
We ranked the top 20 restaurant franchises based on:
Now without further ado, let's bite into our list of the top 20 restaurant franchises in North America in 2023.
McDonald's is recognized worldwide for its golden arches and menu of burgers, fries, shakes, and ice cream. There’s a McDonald’s restaurant in over 100 countries, making it the most widespread international chain. It’s also one of the most successful brands in marketing history, with endorsements from Chrissy Teigen to Michael Jordan, McDonald's offers a range of items from classic Big Macs (a 100% beef, two-patty burger with a specialty sauce) and Chicken McNuggets to salads and breakfast options. The chain’s consistency and price point make it attractive to busy parents, college students, and anyone else looking for a quick meal that doesn’t break the bank, and its highly successful advertising campaigns keep people coming back.
With over 37,000 locations internationally, Subway is right behind McDonald’s as one of the largest restaurant chains in the world. Subway, much like Chipotle (see below) is a build-your-own model. Customers start with their choice of bread (multigrain, Italian, Rye, etc) and craft their own sandwich with their choice of protein, vegetables, and other fix-ins. As one of the first fast-food restaurants to emphasize fresh ingredients – while keeping prices low – Subway positioned itself as a healthy option for those on the go.
Starbucks is a globally recognized coffeehouse chain renowned for its premium coffee, espresso drinks, and cozy cafe atmosphere. With more than 32,000 stores in 80 countries, Starbucks has become synonymous with the modern coffee culture, offering a wide array of beverages ranging from classic brewed coffee to intricate, handcrafted espresso creations.
The brand's distinctive mermaid logo and commitment to sourcing high-quality beans have contributed to its iconic status. Beyond coffee, Starbucks provides a selection of teas, pastries, and light bites, while its inviting interiors make it a popular destination for both quick coffee fixes and leisurely meetings.
KFC, or Kentucky Fried Chicken, is a renowned fast-food chain globally acclaimed for its signature fried chicken recipe and flavorful, Southern-inspired menu. Known for its distinctive blend of 11 herbs and spices, KFC's original recipe chicken has become its hallmark.
With a history rooted in Colonel Sanders' entrepreneurial spirit, the chain offers a variety of chicken options, from crispy to grilled, paired with sides like mashed potatoes, coleslaw, and biscuits. KFC's recognizable red and white logo and emphasis on comfort food make it a staple in the fast-food landscape, catering to individuals seeking hearty and indulgent dining choices.
Domino's Pizza, a well-established global pizza delivery and takeout chain, is known for its focus on efficient service and innovative ordering methods. Renowned for its "30 minutes or free" guarantee (in some locations), Domino's offers a variety of pizza options ranging from traditional choices to creative specialty pies.
With an emphasis on technology, the chain has pioneered online and app-based ordering systems, allowing customers to customize their pizzas and track their deliveries in real-time. Beyond pizza, Domino's menu includes pasta, sandwiches, and sides, catering to a broad spectrum of tastes and preferences, making it a convenient and popular choice for fast and reliable pizza satisfaction.
Pizza Hut, a prominent international pizza chain, is celebrated for its diverse range of pizzas and extensive menu offerings. Recognized for its red-roofed restaurants and delivery services, Pizza Hut provides a variety of pizza styles, from classic pan to its iconic stuffed crust.
Beyond pizza, the chain offers pasta dishes, wings, and sides, making it a one-stop destination for casual dining or takeaway. Pizza Hut's emphasis on customization, family-friendly atmosphere, and iconic red-checkered tablecloths have solidified its place as a popular choice for gatherings and pizza enthusiasts around the world.
Right behind McDonald’s, Burger King is the second most famous hamburger chain in the world. It’s the original home of the Whopper, a flame-grilled 4oz patty served on a sesame seed bun. However, the chain's offerings extend beyond burgers to include chicken sandwiches, fish sandwiches, fries, nuggets, and milkshakes. Their slogan, “Have It Your Way,” emphasizes personalization, with an aim to have offerings that fit anyone’s budget and taste. Burger King maintains a strong presence in a highly competitive fast-food industry and earns its spot as #3 on our list.
Dunkin', formerly known as Dunkin' Donuts, is a renowned American chain famous for its coffee, donuts, and breakfast offerings. With a focus on providing a convenient and quick dining experience, Dunkin' offers a wide array of coffee and espresso drinks, complemented by an assortment of freshly baked donuts, bagels, muffins, and sandwiches.
The brand's distinctive pink and orange logo and "America Runs on Dunkin'" slogan have contributed to its recognition as a go-to spot for a morning pick-me-up or a casual bite. Beyond its classic offerings, Dunkin' has expanded its menu to include seasonal items and healthier options, making it a popular destination for a diverse range of customers.
Hunt Brothers Pizza is a regional pizza chain primarily found in convenience stores and gas stations across the United States. And it is the only franchise on this list that is not international. At the #9 spot, that's impressive!
Known for its emphasis on providing freshly made, customizable pizzas in non-traditional settings, Hunt Brothers offers a simple yet varied menu of pizza options with a focus on affordability and convenience.
The chain's "All Toppings No Extra Charge" approach allows customers to create their own pizzas with a variety of toppings without incurring additional costs. With its presence in convenient locations and a commitment to delivering quick and satisfying pizza solutions, Hunt Brothers Pizza caters to on-the-go customers seeking a simple and tasty dining experience.
Baskin-Robbins, a renowned ice cream and frozen dessert chain, is celebrated for its wide array of unique and flavorful ice cream flavors. With a history dating back to its "31 Flavors" concept, Baskin-Robbins offers a diverse selection of ice cream and frozen treats, often featuring a rotating selection of inventive and traditional flavors.
Known for its vibrant pink and blue logo, the brand provides customers with the opportunity to indulge in cones, cups, sundaes, and custom ice cream cakes. Baskin-Robbins' commitment to variety, creativity, and quality has solidified its position as a beloved destination for ice cream enthusiasts.
Taco Bell, a prominent fast-food chain, is celebrated for its unique fusion of Mexican-inspired flavors and quick-service offerings. Known for its diverse menu featuring a range of tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and other Tex-Mex creations, Taco Bell offers a variety of customizable options and value deals.
With a playful branding style and innovative limited-time offerings, the chain caters to a wide demographic seeking affordable and convenient fast-food options. Taco Bell's emphasis on bold flavors, late-night availability, and distinctive menu items has solidified its status as a popular choice for those craving a fast and flavorful Mexican-inspired meal.
Wendy's, a prominent fast-food chain, is known for its square-shaped burgers, fresh never-frozen beef, and sassy marketing approach. With a focus on offering higher-quality ingredients and made-to-order items, Wendy's menu includes a variety of burger options, chicken sandwiches, salads, and side items like their iconic sea salt fries and Frosty desserts.
The chain's commitment to customization, coupled with its distinctive red-headed mascot and Twitter presence, sets it apart in the fast-food landscape. Wendy's appeals to those seeking a balance between quick-service convenience and a slightly more premium dining experience, making it a popular choice for a range of tastes and preferences.
Dairy Queen, often abbreviated as DQ, is a well-established fast-food and soft-serve dessert chain recognized for its signature Blizzards, ice cream treats, and its iconic cone curls. With a history rooted in serving soft-serve ice cream, Dairy Queen has expanded its menu to include a variety of frozen treats, burgers, hot dogs, and more.
The Blizzards, featuring mix-ins like candy, cookies, and fruit, are a standout offering, while the chain's classic soft-serve cones and sundaes remain favorites. Catering to families and dessert enthusiasts, Dairy Queen offers a delightful range of cold delights and fast-food items, maintaining its position as a cherished destination for sweet indulgence and casual dining.
Tim Horton’s, arguably the most famous Canadian fast-food chain, is known for its iconic coffee and bakery offerings. Named after its co-founder, a former professional hockey player, Tim Horton’s is deeply ingrained in Canadian culture and is celebrated for its "Double-Double'' coffee (two creams, two sugars) and a wide array of donuts, Timbits (most recently endorsed by Justin Beiber), muffins, and sandwiches.
With a focus on providing a cozy and welcoming atmosphere, it serves as a popular gathering spot for both locals and tourists. Beyond its beverages and baked goods, Tim Horton’s also offers soups, sandwiches, and other fast-food items, playing a significant role in Canadian fast food, with more and more restaurants popping up all across North America — and beyond.
Papa John's, a well-known pizza delivery and takeout chain, is distinguished by its commitment to using high-quality ingredients and fresh dough in its pizza offerings. Founded with a focus on "Better Ingredients, Better Pizza", Papa John's menu features a variety of pizza options, along with sides like breadsticks and chicken wings.
Renowned for their tomato sauce made from high-quality tomatoes and freshly grated cheese, the brand's dedication to quality sets it apart in the pizza industry. With an emphasis on customization and efficient delivery service, Papa John's caters to those seeking a more premium pizza experience with a convenient and reliable touch.
Carl’s Jr. has humble beginnings, with the original idea for the restaurant stemming from a hot dog cart that Carl and Margaret Karcher purchased for a little over $300 – all of their savings – in the early 1940’s. Just a few years later, in 1944, they founded Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue (which later turned into Carl’s Jr when they expanded) in Anaheim, California. By the 1960s, Carl was operating 24 restaurants in Southern California and in 1966, the company incorporated as Carl Karcher Enterprises, Inc. In 1997, CKE Restaurants acquired Hardee's, another beloved American burger chain.
Carl’s Jr, given its stronghold in California, is a West Coast staple. It’s known for charbroiled hamburgers, and typical southwestern items like hand-breaded chicken tenders, “CrissCut” fries, and fried zucchini. Dessert offerings include chocolate cake and a milkshake.
Arby's has the meats.
Arby’s is a well-known fast-food chain recognized for its focus on slow-roasted, freshly sliced roast beef sandwiches, along with a variety of meats such as turkey, Angus beef, and chicken served in sandwiches, wraps, and salads. In fact, in 1991, Arby’s became the first restaurant to offer a “Lite” menu, a variety of sandwiches and salads under 300 calories. And, if you’re looking for a quick snack (and not counting calories), their curly fries are a favorite amongst Arby’s fans.
Arby's sets itself apart by offering something other than hamburgers — an innovative approach back in the 1960s — as well as a diverse range of hearty, filling options at a low price point. With a distinct branding style and a commitment to quality ingredients, Arby's caters to meat enthusiasts seeking a quick and satisfying dining experience.
Chipotle Mexican Grill is a popular fast-casual restaurant chain known for customizable, made-to-order Mexican cuisine and healthy ingredients. Founded in 1993, Chipotle is renowned for its "Food with Integrity" philosophy, an emphasis on high-quality, sustainably sourced ingredients such as naturally raised meats, organic produce, and GMO-free options.
Customers have the freedom to build their own burritos, bowls, tacos, and salads from a range of fresh ingredients, making it a go-to choice for those seeking a healthier and personalized dining experience. Chipotle's commitment to transparency in its sourcing practices has garnered a dedicated following, positioning it as a standout in the fast-casual dining landscape.
Krispy Kreme, a renowned global doughnut and coffeehouse chain, is celebrated for its signature melt-in-your-mouth glazed doughnuts and inviting neon-lit storefronts. With a history rooted in its original yeast-raised recipe, Krispy Kreme offers an array of doughnuts, both classic and innovative, alongside a selection of cafe beverages.
The brand's iconic "Hot Now" sign, indicating freshly baked doughnuts, has become a symbol of its commitment to serving customers warm and freshly prepared treats. Known for its indulgent and sweet offerings, Krispy Kreme has garnered a loyal following and remains a favorite for those seeking a delightful doughnut experience.
Denny's is a popular American diner-style restaurant chain known for its 24/7 operation and extensive menu offering classic comfort food — a familiar haven for late-night truckers, road trippers, and anyone looking for a reliable meal any time of day.
With its red-cushion booths, tile floors, wood paneling, and “BREAKFAST - LUNCH - DINNER - LATE NITE” sign, Denny’s has an immediately recognizable classic, retro vibe. Denny's menu features a variety of dishes, including “Grand Slam” breakfast combos, pancakes, omelets, burgers, sandwiches, salads, and desserts, appealing to a wide audience. But most importantly, it’s affordable. The average Denny’s dish, even today, only runs between $10-$15 USD. Its approachable atmosphere and affordability make it a go-to choice for families, travelers, and those seeking a casual dining experience day and night.
And there you have it! The top 20 restaurant franchises in North America for 2023. Did your favorites make the list?
These 20 highly successful and crave-worthy brands represent a dynamic blend of culinary offerings that have effectively captured the hearts and taste buds of a worldwide consumer base. From fast-food giants like McDonald's and Subway, known for their global reach and affordability, to the fast-casual innovators like Chipotle, focused on fresh ingredients and customization, these franchises have thrived by adapting to changing preferences and providing consistent quality. Whether it's the iconic fast-food classics, indulgent comfort foods, or the evolving landscape of healthy and customizable options, these franchises showcase the enduring appeal of both tradition and innovation in the North American dining scene. Their collective success underscores their ability to meet the ever-evolving demands of consumers while maintaining a strong presence in the competitive world of franchised restaurants. Happy dining!
“In the labor numbers, we were reporting about a $300 to $400 difference than what we were getting through Push!”
-Tara Hardie, ZZA Hospitality Group, 16 locations