The following 14 chains—appearing in no particular order—are among the largest brands in the restaurant sector. Because they're privately held, financial performance can be more difficult to judge year over year. Nevertheless, variables such as store openings and closings, mergers and acquisition, new tech solutions, customer engagement, and workforce initiatives serve as their own benchmarks and help divine which restaurants are on the up and up
Publicly Traded Titans of Industry
Methodology: The sales and unit count data for the FSR 50 was collected and calculated using public filings with the Security and Exchange Commission. All brands were contacted to confirm numbers, although not all replied. The data reflects U.S. locations only and encompasses both corporate-owned and franchised units.
Buffalo Wild Wings did an estimated $3–$4 billion in 2021. Parent company Inspire Brands’ diverse portfolio (including Arby’s and Dunkin’, among others) has BWW well-situated as the M&A market heats up. Utilizing the expertise of its limited-service sisters, the brand is trimming costs by streamlining operations. It’s testing Flippy Wings (a robotic chicken wing fryer) and kicking up growth of its “GO” concept, which features heated lockers.
Recently, it’s been a revolving door in Red Lobster’s C-suite. Last year, Black Box Intelligence’s Kelli Valade succeeded Kim Lopdrup as CEO, and then earlier this year, the company retained CKE Restaurants’ Patty Trevino as CMO and Bloomin’ Brands’ David Schmidt as CFO. But this new dynamic was not long-lived, with Valade leaving Red Lobster in mid-April, a mere eight months after her start.
Although many pundits have decried the end of the buffet, Golden Corral is once again on the up and up. Though the brand is about 100 locations smaller than its pre-COVID unit count, same-store sales are rebounding and besting 2019 levels by 3–5 percent as of this summer. What’s more, the brand is piloting two new models, including GC Grill House, a value-based steakhouse, and a fast casual with drive-thru pickup.
Even before COVID, Hooters had waded into limited service with Hoots Wings, a fast casual whose growth is rivaling its full-service progenitor. The launch of digital brands Hootie’s Burger Bar, Hootie’s Chicken Tenders, and Hootie’s Bait & Tackle solidified its position in the off-premises space. Still, Hooters remains committed to in-person experiences and is now exploring the booming world of sports gambling.
Before off-premises was a necessity, Bob Evans had already grown that arm to 20 percent of its overall business. The brand streamlined its physical spaces to better handle the mix of in-person and takeout orders while also eliminating ingredients that couldn’t be cross utilized. Last summer, CEO Saed Mohseni estimated 2021 sales could eclipse $780 million, which he described as “somewhat historic” figures.
Like Hooters, P.F. Chang’s has invested in a fast-casual iteration, which debuted in fall 2020. As of this March, there were nearly a dozen P.F. Chang’s To Go dotting the country with additional locations in the works. But perhaps the most buzzworthy news out of P.F. Chang’s last year was its (reported) flirtation with an IPO. The chain had previously gone public in 1998 before it was acquired by Centerbridge Partners for $1.1 billion in 2012. Last year’s rumors had its estimated value around that same amount.
After filing for bankruptcy in 2020, California Pizza Kitchen achieved pre-COVID performance levels last year. In December, it launched a domestic franchise program for the first time in brand history.
Parent company Ascent Hospitality has made good on its goal to turn twice-bankrupt Perkins around. Last summer, it launched nationwide franchising and collaborated with design firm Louis + Partners to build smaller, modernized prototypes for both brands. Its franchise appeal was further enhanced by a new virtual brand, MrBeast Burger, and tech updates like handheld tablets and EMV devices. Perkins and Huddle House signed deals for 32 new restaurants in the 2021 fiscal year.
In addition to opening new units, Cooper’s Hawk also expanded its portfolio with specialty concepts Esquire by Cooper’s Hawk and Piccolo Buco by Cooper’s Hawk. The former features rotating menus from celebrated chefs like Tom Colicchio and Carla Hall. The latter marks a partnership between Cooper’s Hawk and a Roman pizzeria. In the background of all this lies a possible IPO for the 17-year-old brand.
This will be Twin Peaks’ last year (for the foreseeable future) appearing on the privately held section of the FSR 50. In October 2021, FAT Brands bought the casual-dining restaurant for $300 million. Prior to the acquisition, Twin Peaks had said it planned to triple in size by 2027. And with new locations opening right and left, it’s off to a strong start.
Black Bear Diner entered 2021 from a position of strength, having opened six locations (and only closing one) at the height of the pandemic. This year, it’s working to add 20 new units, marking a return to its pre-COVID annual average. In the future, that number could be even higher as the brand doubles down on franchising.
Following the launch of nostalgic TV dinners and virtual brand Jolene’s Wings & Beer in 2020, Lazy Dog took the opportunity to catch its breath in 2021. It continued to introduce signature beers crafted by Melvin Brewing out of Wyoming and then broke ground in Boca Raton, Florida, with its first Sunshine State location.
It’s safe to say that 2021 was a banner year for Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux. Not only was it named the No. 1 sports bar franchise by Entrepreneur magazine, the brand opened 15 new stores and hit the much-coveted $5 million AUV mark. This year, it’s targeting 20 units, including one of the toughest markets all around: Las Vegas.
Although expansion slowed for the “conscious-casual” brand over the past two years, it still boasts 40-plus units across 17 states with more on the way. As costs surge, True Food Kitchen plans to hold true to its high quality standards and put an even greater emphasis on the wholesome ingredients throughout its menu as points of differentiation.