Fast food took root in America the 1950s and has flourished into a $255 billion US industry. These restaurants — globally associated with American culture — evoke surprising passion, with many developing a cult-like loyalty from their customers. But which chain is truly the best?
Business Insider partnered with Restaurant Business, a foodservice industry expert and media outlet, to compile a definitive ranking of the best fast food restaurants in America. Using proprietary data collected by Restaurant Business and its sister research firm Technomic, we looked at nearly 100 of the largest US chains and rated them on three key criteria that we considered the most telling for all-around fast food excellence: financial performance, customer satisfaction, and overall value. Our calculations accounted for sales growth, average sales per location, consumer sentiment ratings, and the average cost of a meal, among other metrics. Read more about the methodology here.
Towering sales figures alone weren't enough to make the cut, as a number of fast-food heavyweights — like McDonald's and Taco Bell — don't crack the top-25 of our ranking. Rather, customers tend to gravitate toward more specialized and regional brands that offer a higher quality experience — including fresh, sustainable ingredients — at an affordable price, explains Restaurant Business.
Keep reading to see the 25 best fast food chains in America in 2016.
The 25 best fast-food chains in America
The 25 best fast-food chains in America
25. Qdoba Mexican Eats
Headquarters: Lakewood, Colorado
US sales: $745 million
Number of US locations: 670
Financial performance rank: 18
Customer satisfaction rank: 40
Value rank: 73
Qdoba grew sales by 9% in 2015, but it can’t seem to shake constant comparisons to Chipotle, which had nearly the same rate of growth last year. The origins of the burrito behemoths are actually quite similar: Qdoba was founded in 1995 in Colorado, two years after and four miles north of the first location of its now faltering competitor.
But in an effort to distinguish itself, Qdoba announced last October that it would redesign locations and ramp up its menu — which offers tacos, salads, burritos, and quesadillas — based on a new version of its ideal customer, a woman named Quentessa, who’s “naturally magnetic” and leads “a story-filled life.”
(Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
24. Ben & Jerry's
Headquarters: South Burlington, Vermont
US sales: $78 million
Number of US locations: 235
Financial performance rank: 89
Customer satisfaction rank: 4
Value rank: 1
After taking a $5 ice-cream-making course at Penn State, best friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield purchased an old gas station and turned it into a scoop shop. Ben & Jerry’s is now known for inventive ice-cream flavors like Cherry Garcia, Phish Food, and Americone Dream.
Almost 40 years in the business, the ice-cream veterans keep finding new ways to bring its most loved products to customers. In May 2016, the company announced it would start “flipping” three of its classic flavors. For instance, the flavor Half Baked has been changed to Totally Baked — instead of brownies in chocolate ice cream and cookie dough in vanilla, the ice-cream-and-baked-good combos will be swapped.
Credit: Charles Benes via Getty Images
Headquarters: Houston, Texas
US sales: $253 million
Number of US locations: 173
Financial performance rank: 77
Customer satisfaction rank: 8
Value rank: 25
Since its inception, Fuddruckers has aimed to create the “World’s Greatest Hamburgers.” It prides itself on its never-frozen patties, baked-from-scratch buns, and DIY topping bar, ensuring customers get exactly what they want.
Despite slipping US sales — down 1.2% last year — Fuddruckers has accrued a host of loyal customers who flock to the chain for its juicy hamburgers and crisp sesame buns, earning the restaurant a top-notch customer satisfaction rating on Technomic.
Credit: Cassandra Hubbart, AOL
22. Five Guys Burger and Fries
Headquarters: Lorton, Virginia
US sales: $1.32 billion
Number of US locations: 1,215
Financial performance rank: 22
Customer satisfaction rank: 22
Value rank: 86
The cult favorite started in Washington, DC, in 1986 when former bond trader Jerry Murrelland his family opened a burger joint — named for Murrell and his four sons — with the goal of cooking hamburgers and fries using the best quality ingredients.
Despite its seemingly simple menu, there are more than 250,000 possible ways to order a burger at Five Guys. (The restaurants are off-limits to those with peanut allergies, as all fries are cooked in peanut oil and there are barrels of old-fashioned peanuts lining each shop’s dining area.)
(Photo by Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
21. Potbelly Sandwich Shop
Headquarters: Chicago, Illinois
US sales: $380 million
Number of US locations: 396
Financial performance rank: 62
Customer satisfaction rank: 18
Value rank: 17
When Potbelly opened in 1977, it was an antique shop. The young couple who ran it decided they wanted to serve lunch to their customers and the store evolved into a local lunch spot. In 1996, entrepreneur Bryant Keil bought Potbelly and turned it into a franchise; he stepped down as CEO in 2008 and is no longer involved.
Today, not only do all the Potbelly stores serve sandwiches and fresh cookies, but each location has its own potbelly stove and curated knickknacks as a testament to the chain’s origins.
Credit: Raymond Boyd via Getty Images
20. Pollo Campero
Headquarters: Dallas, Texas
US sales: $96 million
Number of US restaurants: 58
Financial performance rank: 63
Customer satisfaction rank: 16
Value rank: 17
With fewer than 100 stores, Pollo Campero is by far the smallest chain to make the list. But diners adore the casual chicken spot, rating it highly in customer satisfaction and touting it as a solid value.
Pollo Campero, initially founded in Guatemala in 1971, stands out from other "better chicken" chains, such as Wingstop and Raising Cane’s, for its authentic Latin flavors and impeccable service — meals are served on real plates with real silverware.
Credit: Allen J. Schaben via Getty Images
19. Jamba Juice
Headquarters: Emeryville, California
US sales: $539 million
Number of US locations: 818
Financial performance rank: 72
Customer satisfaction rank: 14
Value rank: 5
Founded in 1990 in a California beach town, Jamba Juice was years ahead of today’s ubiquitous green smoothie and healthy living trends. Despite slow growth, the smoothie stop has remained a favorite for loyal customers over the years.
The chain’s menu has expanded to offer Greek yogurt energy bowls and plenty of new fruit and vegetable smoothies. But perhaps Jamba Juice’s most infamous item is the Wheatgrass shot — a liquefied chunk of grass cut right off the in-store grass garden that’s packed with vitamin K.
Credit: Bob Berg via Getty Images
18. Papa Murphy's Pizza
Headquarters: Vancouver, Washington
US sales: $880 million
Number of US locations: 1,496
Financial performance rank: 73
Customer satisfaction rank: 3
Value rank: 31
The pizza franchise started in 1995 after the merger of two pizzerias, Papa Aldo’s and Murphy’s Pizza. Its pies are “take and bake,” meaning they are made to order and cooked in the customer's oven at home.
Customers can pick from the signature pies like Chicken Bacon Artichoke and Spicy Fennel Sausage, or they can create their own and choose the type of dough, sauce, and toppings. It may not sell as many pies as Domino's or Pizza Hut, but the concept is a hit. Papa Murphy's scores top marks for customer satisfaction and is the only pizza chain to make the top 25.
At Jimmy John’s, customers can’t get enough of the chain’s signature subs and “freaky fast” delivery service. Jimmy John Liautaud opened the first shop back in 1983 to avoid pressure from his father to perform a stint in the Army. Papa Liautaud lent him $25,000, and if the restaurant turned a profit the first year he wouldn’t have to enlist. Sure enough, the gourmet sub business took off and he slowly expanded across the country.
Jimmy John’s franchises commit to sustainability by partnering with suppliers who reach high standards of sustainable and ethical food practices. The chain also employs local businesses to build and maintain each JJ’s store.
The average customer order totals just over $11 at Schlotzsky's, according to Technomic. That's pricey for a sandwich shop, but the higher-quality offerings keep customers satisfied. Schlotzky's serves up more than a dozen classic sandwiches, as well as oven-baked pastas, flatbreads, soups, salads, gourmet pizzas, and Cinnabon desserts.
After more than 40 years of operation, Schlotzsky's has begun remodeling its locations to install electronic charging stations for phones and laptops, called “Juice Bars,”and plans to include them in all new locations.
The fast-casual giant took a hit at the end of 2015 with an E. Coli outbreak at a number of its restaurants. Despite a drop in sales at the beginning of 2016, Chipotle still maintains its “food with integrity” policy — to serve fresh, high-quality ingredients sans preservatives.
Chipotle hasn’t changed its menu much since it opened in 1993 — tacos, burritos, bowls, and salads are all made-to-order via assembly line — but in April 2016, the company said it was considering adding chorizo as a meat option to help lure back customers.
Credit: Bloomberg via Getty Images
14. Moe's Southwest Grill
Headquarters: Atlanta, Georgia
US sales: $638 million
Number of US locations:637
Financial performance rank: 32
Customer satisfaction rank: 27
Value rank: 19
A strong competitor to Chipotle, Moe’s Southwest Grill is gaining brand recognition and making its way into the limelight for its fresh burritos, tacos, and nachos. It was named Fast Casual Mexican Restaurant of the Year by the Harris Poll’s annual Brand of the Year Awards, stealing the crown away from longtime winner Chipotle.
Moe’s — which isn’t a person, but rather an acronym for musicians, outlaws, and entertainers — operates an “innovation center” in Georgia, where it’s testing new menu items, including a fajita steak quesadilla.
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13. Panera Bread/Saint Louis Bread Co.
Headquarters: St. Louis, Missouri
US sales: $4.8 billion
Number of US locations:1,955
Financial performance rank: 12
Customer satisfaction rank: 23
Value rank: 43
Panera — the soup, salad, and sandwich bakery and café combo — has been a fixture in food news over the last couple of years for its radical redesign, called Panera 2.0. The recent changes include the installation of digital ordering kiosks in several restaurants to minimize long lines and decrease wait times for food. The chain is betting heavily on a digital-utilization revolutionin hopes of staying ahead of the curve and catering to a new generation of customers.
Incidentally, Panera Bread was established as a division of Au Bon Pain — now one of its competitors — but began to show growth promise, so executives decided to take a bet on it. The chain now includes Saint Louis Bread Co. and Paradise Bakery & Café under its banner.
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Headquarters: San Antonio, Texas
US sales: $2 billion
Number of US locations: 791
Financial performance rank: 1
Customer satisfaction rank: 33
Value rank: 37
Whataburger founder Harmon Dobson's goal was to create a burger so big that customers would have to use both hands to hold it. It would be so good that at first bite they would declare, “What a burger!” Thus, in 1950, Whataburger was born.
Whataburger can be found in 10 states only, but the chain has hardcore fans. A man who tattooed the Whataburger logo on his arm was awarded free food for a decade by the company.
Started by two childhood friends aiming to alleviate the lack of great wing joints in their Georgia hometown, Zaxby’s is known for its craveable wing sauce and crinkle-cut fries. Customers also cheer the "better chicken" joint’s signature salads, a menu item few fast-food restaurants have been able to popularize.
The chain, which pulls in $1.5 billion in sales, has expanded rapidly in the Past year: Revenues are up 18% and the company opened nearly 90 new locations, bringing their total to 748.
Nutrition is a priority at Jason’s Deli, which has eliminated artificial trans fat, most artificial MSG, and all artificial colors, dyes, and flavors from its food over the past 10 years. In addition, the chain serves fresh produce — delivered to its locations six days a week — as well as more than a dozen USDA-certified organic ingredients.
The family-owned chain has set up shop in 30 states in the South and Midwest over 40 years of operation.
At Culver’s, diners can expect to spend a little more than they would at a run-of-the-mill burger joint, with average orders totaling nearly $9.50, according to Technomic. But it might just be worth it for the chain’s frozen custard and ButterBurgers, the signature burger that gets its name from the glaze of butter that coats the bun.
Though there are over 500 restaurants, you may have difficulty finding a Culver’s since they're primarily in the Midwest. That doesn’t mean that business is tough for the chain, though. Culver’s sales grew 15.5% in 2015, and their financial performance rank is second only to Whataburger.
West Coast chain Habit Burger Grill saw a major surge in popularity last year, evidenced by a 43% growth in sales. The small regional chain was also named the best-tasting burger in America, according to a survey by Consumer Reports, beating out competitors like Shake Shack, In-N-Out, and Five Guys.
Habit Burger isn’t stopping there. The chain plans to continue expanding beyond the West Coast, with goals to open 2,000 restaurants, an ambitious leap from its 142.
The Mississippi-based deli specializes in local and regional American favorites, from The New Yorker with its corned beef, pastrami, and Swiss on rye to the West Coast Bánh Mì, McAlister’s take on the Vietnamese classic, not to mention the chain’s famous sweet tea.
The bulk of McAlister’s restaurants are in the Southeastern US, but it’s looking for franchise partners in several cities in Wisconsin and Colorado to continue growing westward.
In 1937, Krispy Kreme founder Vernon Rudolph used a recipe given to him from a New Orleans chef so that he could make and sell doughnuts to local grocery stores. As the fresh-baked donut smell wafted into the streets, customers began requesting to purchase the delicacies directly, so Rudolph cut a hole in the wall to open his first retail location.
Krispy Kreme might be famous for its original glazed doughnut, but in May 2016 Krispy Kreme announced plans to start selling ‘edible coffee treats’ — bars that taste just like the chains coffee and doughnut flavors.
(Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
5. Jersey Mike's Subs
Headquarters: Manasquan, New Jersey
US sales: $675 million
Number of US restaurants: 1,046
Financial performance rank: 24
Customer satisfaction rank: 9
Value rank: 16
Jersey Mike’s Subs celebrated the opening of its 1,000th location last October and has already added nearly 50 more stores to its fleet. The fast-growing sandwich chain plans to continue its rapid expansion, aiming for 2,000 total locations by 2019.
Known for its handcrafted subs loaded with high-quality ingredients, Jersey Mike’s is a customer favorite, earning a top 10 customer-satisfaction rating from Technomic.
With plans to double its number of restaurants by 2020, Firehouse Subs is taking on Subway, its biggest competitor, with bold-flavor sandwiches piled high with quality meats and cheeses. In 2015, the chain grew sales by 17% to $110 million and added 93 locations. But quality didn't suffer; Firehouse earned the No. 1 ranking for customer satisfaction of all the fast-food chains.
The Florida-based franchise was founded in 1994 by a pair of brothers and former firefighters who sought to bring the enthusiasm and appetite of the firehouse to their restaurants. The chain’s charitable arm has donated $18 million from sales and in-store donations to more than 1,300 organizations benefiting first responders.
California’s first drive-thru hamburger stand was opened in 1948. Nearly seven decades later, the menu remains simple, offering only five items. But loyal customers know that if they want to expand their options, they can order off the not-so-secret menu — it features items such as aprotein style burger and grilled cheese.
In-N-Out can only be found on the West Coast, but there’s a good reason for that. Since the chain prides itself on serving top-notch ingredients free of additives or preservatives, all stores must be within 300 miles of the distribution facilities. Sorry, East Coasters.
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2. Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers
Headquarters: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
US sales: $567 million
Number of US restaurants: 249
Financial performance rank: 6
Customer satisfaction rank: 6
Value rank: 34
Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers focuses on only one menu item: first-rate chicken strips. But what truly keeps fans addicted is Cane’s signature tangy sauce, a secret blend that customers can’t get enough of.
The limited menu doesn’t translate to limited business, though: Sales were up 26% last year. The chain has expanded from its roots in Louisiana across the South and Midwest.
Chick-fil-A claims the crown as America's best fast-food chain as the only one to rank in the top five each for financial performance, customer satisfaction, and value.
This Southern favorite — which recently opened its first location in New York City — is the largest food chain on our list and eighth-largest in the US by sales. The fried-chicken chain has recently diversified its menu, adding a kale and broccolini salad, a premium coffee line, new sauces, and a barbecue-bacon sandwich in an effort to take on competitors.