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Datassential’s Top 500: Large U.S. Chains Recover COVID Losses

COVID-19, Food Inflation, Food Supply Chain, Food Trends, Foodservice, Innovation, Menu Trends, Restaurants

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The nation’s largest chains have more than recovered in size from what they lost during the pandemic, according to the fifth edition of Datassential’s annual Top 500 Report. 

The Top 500 restaurant chains had a total of 232,937 units in 2022, up 1.1 percent from 2021. This highlights how the industry has stabilized after a few tumultuous years. 

Sales, though, rose 8.6% to $389.07 billion buoyed in large part by price increases. Chains were able to take steeper price increases than independent restaurants last year primarily because chains lean heavily to quick-service restaurants (QSRs) and those restaurants tend to have the lowest price points, so they’re able to make large percentage price increases without alienating customers. 

Subway remains the largest restaurant chain by units, at 20,576. McDonald’s is still No. 1 in sales, at $48.67 billion.

But there is a change at the top in terms of the fastest-growing U.S. chain: Mochinut, a Los Angeles-based chain that sells mochi donuts, bubble tea and Korean hot dogs, was the fastest growing in 2022 in terms of both unit and sales growth. Mochinut catapulted over 2021’s fastest-growing chain, fellow dessert retailer Crumbl. 

American consumers are far from focusing on just their sweet tooth, though – the second-fastest growing chain in terms of both units and sales growth is Salad And Go,  a tech-forward fast-food salad chain with locations concentrated in the Southwest. 

Here are some more key insights from the fifth edition of this report, formerly the Firefly 500+, in partnership with Nation’s Restaurant News: 

Restaurant operators navigated through a trifecta of challenges in 2022 

All restaurant operators continued to endure the trifecta of labor challenges, inflation, and supply chain worries and top chains were no exception. Rising costs, though, continued to be the most difficult challenges that faced the industry.

Staffing issues and uncertainty compounded operator concerns

With few signs that the labor crisis will improve any time soon, operators at top chains will need to be strategic about enhancing their compensation structures and workplace culture. We’ve started to see new efforts by industry leaders in 2022, but there’s always room for more and better.

Top brands face unionization and collective bargaining movement

By the end of 2022, many employees at chains like McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Peet’s Coffee successfully negotiated union contracts at their stores, joined by over 250 Starbucks locations. Whether this movement continues remains to be seen, but chains will need to pay attention to how the movement develops as employee morale remains a challenge: 47% of operators say their employee morale has worsened in 2022

Out with the dining room, in with digital-only pickup

In 2022, limited-service (LSR) chains leaned into their off-premise strategies and experimented with digital-only concepts that feature no inside dining room or, sometimes, ordering counter. This march towards the future is most likely a direct response to recent economic conditions, where it pays for LSR chains to maximize off-premise revenue, reduce physical footprints, and optimize speed of service, especially with fewer workers.

The full Top 500 report offers a deep dive into trends that changed the industry in 2021, and nods at those to come. The report includes a breakdown by segment of the top 500 chains, and offers readers an inside look at those segments, their performance, winning menu items and how the industry is changing for the future. 

Plus, readers can see how chains rank up in terms of consumer perception across metrics from food quality to service, net promoter scores. 

For access to a preview of the report’s highlights, click here. The full report is available only to subscribers. If you’d like to become a subscriber, reach out here.


Samantha Des Jardins is the Content Marketing Manager at Datassential.

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Datassential Media Team