As quick-service restaurants navigate the changing foodservice landscape, average unit volume (AUV) is a key metric that speaks to a chain’s operational efficiency and overall success.
The AUV indicates the average annual sales that a brand earns per restaurant—a reflection of how consumers feel about the brand itself.
These are the top five highest-grossing fast-food chains in the U.S. by AUV, according to QSR Magazine.
1 – Chick-fil-A — $6.7 million
Chick-fil-A’s steady but rapid growth is unrivaled. With only 2,837 stores, the brand generated $18.8 billion in U.S. systemwide sales in 2022. The year before, that figure was $16.7 billion. In 2020, it was $13.7 billion, and just four years ago in 2019, it was $12.2 billion.
“To put it plainly, no restaurant brand in the QSR 50 has come this far, this quickly, and punches that high above its store count,” wrote the authors of the 2023 QSR 50 report. Chick-fil-A trails only McDonald’s and Starbucks in systemwide results despite the fact that McDonald’s and Starbucks have 10,607 and 13,036 more U.S. stores, respectively.
And Chick-fil-A isn’t even open on Sundays.
2 – Raising Cane’s — $5.4 million
Raising Cane’s, known for its chicken fingers, added a net 246 locations between 2019 and 2022 and saw total systemwide sales climb from $1.5 billion to $3.1 billion.
The brand is one to watch, with a current total of 646 U.S. stores and plenty of room to grow. Co-CEO AJ Kumaran believes Raising Cane’s is on track to triple its current figure in the next seven years. When it happens, Kumaran believes the brand will generate $8 million per store averages, on par with what Chick-fil-A presently reports at its drive-thrus.
3 – Shake Shack — $3.8 million
With a footprint of only 287 U.S. locations, Shake Shack recorded an estimated $994 million in systemwide sales. The brand’s growth strategy involves focusing on drive-thru and plans to open 10-15 drive-thru restaurants in 2023. The handful of drive-thrus that Shake Shack already has are performing as well as or better than company averages, earning more than $4 million with strong operating profit margins.
CEO Randy Garutti told QSR that the chain is “doing kind of a little bit of everything so that we can learn what we like best.” That means experimenting with everything from how many drive-thru lanes to build, to how tech will be utilized, to where windows will go—all in pursuit of optimization.
4 – Whataburger — $3.7 million
Whataburger added 52 new stores last year, bringing its total units to 925 and generating $3.3 million in systemwide sales. The regional hamburger chain’s sales jumped 24% in 2022 from $2.7 billion in 2021, with AUV increasing 16.5% to $3.7 million.
This month, Whataburger opened its first digital-forward restaurant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The location features brand new food lockers where customers can pick up mobile orders. These temperature-controlled lockers feature opaque compartment doors “to ensure privacy,” touchscreens,and compartment sensors designed to simplify order loading and accuracy.
5 – McDonald’s — $3.6 million
The world’s largest burger chain recorded $48.7 billion in systemwide sales last year across its 13,444 U.S. locations. According to QSR, McDonald’s “is experiencing a renaissance of sorts thanks to its overall transformation plan, Accelerating the Arches, which calls for modernization, emphasis on core menu items, and the three Ds—digital, delivery, and drive-thru.”
The renaissance era is ongoing, as this summer the golden arches got an extra sales boost from the explosive success of Grimace’s Birthday promotion, which quickly went viral. In Q2, McDonald’s same-store sales grew a whopping 11.7%. On a July earnings call, CEO Chris Kempczinksi put it plainly, “This quarter, if I’m being honest, the theme was Grimace.”