Even as the franchise model has expanded into just about every industry imaginable, food remains the largest and one of the fastest-growing industries in the franchise world. Thirty percent of the 1,105 companies that applied for Entrepreneur’s 2020 Franchise 500 ranking were food-related franchises, and new concepts continue to come on the scene every year.
Food is also one of the most durable franchise industries. While running a restaurant can certainly be challenging, there’s a reason brands like A&W, which just turned 100 last year, are still around today—they know how to earn loyalty, and they know how to adapt to keep that loyalty strong even in extreme situations. As dining rooms were shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic, food franchisors rose to the occasion, quickly finding ways to keep serving customers and communities and help their franchisees survive—and, in some cases, even thrive.
On the following pages, we celebrate the strength and resilience of these companies with our list of the top 200 food franchises, ranked within their respective categories. This ranking is based on the scores each company received from our Franchise 500 formula, which evaluates more than 150 data points—collected last summer (2019)—in the areas of costs and fees, size and growth, franchisee support, brand strength, and financial strength and stability.
Remember as you read that this list is not intended as a recommendation of any particular company. It’s more important than ever to do your own careful research before investing in a franchise opportunity. Read the company’s legal documents, consult with an attorney and an accountant, and talk to as many existing and former franchisees as you can about their experiences.
When dining rooms closed, Chicken Salad Chick’s franchisees found creative ways to keep serving customers, including pop-up drive-throughs and community drop-off events. Many restaurants also added a “donate a meal” option to their online ordering, giving customers an option to pay for meals to feed frontline workers. Grayson Moody, a young fan of the brand in Atlanta, asked friends and family to donate meals in lieu of gifts for her 13th birthday, raising more than $1,300.
Kona Ice trucks usually do business in places where people gather—schools, sports fields, churches, events. So when such gatherings ceased due to social distancing recommendations, franchisees had to find another way to reach their customers. The company created Kurbside Kona, a delivery service that allows customers to preorder shaved ice treats online and then have them delivered to their driveway by their local Kona truck.
Even as states began loosening restrictions and allowing dining rooms to reopen, most followed federal guidelines suggesting that self-service options not be reopened—a big problem for buffets. But the country’s largest buffet chain, Golden Corral, didn’t let that stop it, instead coming up with different service models for franchisees to implement depending on the rules in their areas, including a cafeteria-style model with staff members serving the food and a family-style table-service model.
A&W celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, making it America’s oldest franchised restaurant chain. And while the brand might be most famous for its root beer, it was also the first chain to offer a bacon cheeseburger, a creation of current chairman, Dale Mulder, when he was a franchisee in 1963. So perhaps it’s no surprise that when the company started offering plant-based Beyond Burgers and flexitarian guests asked for bacon and cheese to be added, A&W was happy to comply.
A&W isn’t the only franchise looking to appeal to guests seeking more vegetarian, vegan, and flexitarian options. Plant-based foods have been one of the biggest trends of the last year, popping up on a number of franchise menus. And with the prospect of meat shortages looming, it’s a trend that may prove even more important to restaurants’ success than they might have originally expected.