Revised and updated December 18, 2020.
Pizza is one of the most important foods in America, with 43% of Americans eating it at least once a week. It’s hardly surprising, as pizza is a relatively low-cost way to feed a family, while providing variety through its toppings. Delivery and take-out is a huge part of this, with 36% of Americans regularly eating fast food, and pizza from franchise restaurants is central to this market. That focus on delivery has helped pizza franchises to grow while others struggled during the COVID-19 crisis.
Prior to the crisis, pizza chains were already doing well. There were $46.34 billion in pizza sales in 2019, out of a US fast food industry valued at $256 billion in 2018. The most important player in this market is the Domino’s franchise, which had 19% of all pizza sales in the US in 2019, and 36% of delivery sales. A strong approach to the delivery market has helped Domino’s to rebuild a tarnished profile, and its stock price has risen 99% in three years.
Across the board, franchises are taking over the pizza business. Chain pizza restaurants were up 3.17% in sales in 2019, while independents were down 1.33%, and large chains now have 60% of pizza sales. While small businesses can succeed, franchises are steadily expanding.
The restaurant industry was hit hard by COVID-19, with dine-in restaurants closing across America. Many people replaced this with delivery food, leading to what Domino’s CEO Ritch Allison described as “unprecedented acceleration for food delivery in the U.S.” Pizza benefited from this, and was one of the top three cuisines by sales in June, along with chicken and hamburgers.
In the second quarter of 2020, big pizza franchises had massive increases in sales. Papa John’s saw a 28% year-on-year increase, Pizza Hut 21%, and Domino’s 16%, compared with just 3% for the same quarter in 2019. New staff were recruited, with Papa John’s alone hiring 30,000 extra employees between March and July.
While this spike may decline as COVID-19 recedes, it’s not going to completely go away. A long stretch of new behavior is habit forming, and people have gotten used to their regular pizza deliveries. Pizza franchises are likely to keep performing well above their 2019 achievements.
The exact shape of the industry will be affected not just by regional variations in COVID-19 but by trends that were emerging before the pandemic.
39% of Americans look for healthy options when ordering fast food. Together with growing demand for vegan, vegetarian and allergy-sensitive alternatives, this means that franchises will do better if they can offer a broad and varied menu. Adding new options doesn’t take away from what existing customers like, and lets franchises pick up new customers.
Before COVID-19, a drive toward healthier, higher quality eating was seeing fast casual restaurants gain ground on fast food, growing by 8.3% in 2019, compared with 4.2% for more traditional fast food outlets. However, fast casual restaurants have been slower to recover from COVID-19 than fast food restaurants, and so this relationship is likely to be reversed in the short term, before fast casual recommences its rise.
Digital innovation is important. Domino’s growth has been grounded in improving its digital infrastructure to make online ordering quick, easy, and convenient, while adding features like delivery to public spaces and group alerts for when a delivery arrives. 60% of digital orders come through apps, and these are more convenient for many customers. On the other hand, some are looking for a more human experience, and there are attempts to provide this, such as Washington D.C.’s &pizza chain adding text-based ordering which allows a conversation about the order.
An important factor to consider is delivery. Some brands rely on third-party delivery, using the likes of DoorDash and Grubhub, while others, such as Domino’s, have their own delivery infrastructure. The latter option increases a business’s ongoing financial commitments but reduces costs per delivery. Third parties are convenient, but can keep up to 30% of a bill, significantly eating into profits.
One more specific event will lead to adjustments within the pizza franchise landscape in 2021, and that’s the collapse of NPC International Inc. The largest Pizza Hut franchisee in North America, the company filed for bankruptcy during the pandemic. This was the climax of ongoing problems with labor costs, food prices, and competition, which were already hitting NPC hard. The company had been moving away from dine-in toward delivery, but not fast enough, and the pandemic became the nail in its coffin.
In NPC’s absence, opportunities will arise for others to fill the gap in Pizza Hut franchising, with NPC disposing of 163 locations. This will create more chances for others to take on Pizza Hut franchises, or for other brands to take a bite from Pizza Hut’s market share while the franchise recovers. The collapse has further highlighted the importance of focusing on delivery.
Regardless of the outcome for ex-NPC restaurants, pizza is a strong option for anyone looking to get into franchised business.
The Top Pizza Franchises of 2021
1. Pizza Hut
Pizza Hut was started in the 1950s by Dan and Frank Carney in Wichita, Kansas, and is a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, Inc., one of the world’s largest restaurant companies. In an effort to not fall further behind Domino’s, the company recently announced it will close about 500 dine-in locations in order to focus on the more popular delivery and carryout segment. Playing catch-up to the rivals stealing your market share is not a good place to be, but while the Hut’s market share has fallen from 25% in 1995 to its current 13.3%, there are still plenty of loyal consumers supporting the chain.
Founded in 1958 and franchising since 1959, the number of locations has continued to expand in recent years to the current total of 17,227 (up from the previous total of 15,418), of which 97 are company-owned and 11,177 are located outside the US.
Domino’s is the new king of pizza, both in terms of global sales ($13.5 billion) and number of locations. The chain was among the first to popularize home delivery and now delivers more than a million pizzas every day. It recently rolled out pizza delivery by custom e-bikes made by electric bicycle company Rad Power Bikes.
The secret to Domino’s success has a lot to do with ordering technology. The company’s new AnyWare digital ordering platform expands the kinds of devices consumers can use to place orders, including smart speakers (Amazon Echo/Alexa), smart TVs, smart watches, and social media platforms along with the usual array of desktops, tablets, and mobile phones.
Founded by brothers Thomas and James Monaghan in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1960, the latest annual report filing from the company indicates there were 17,020 locations (up from the 2018 total of 15,914), of which 342 are company-owned and 10,894 are located outside the US.
3. Little Caesars
Little Caesars was founded in 1959 by Mike Ilitch, a shortstop for the Detroit Tigers farm team at the time, and his wife Marian. The first location in Garden City is still open today. The company recently built a new 9-story $150 million headquarters building in Detroit featuring a glass façade composed of panes of glass in the triangular shape of pizza slices.
In addition to its well-known catch-phrase of “Pizza! Pizza!” and square pies, Little Caesars broke new ground with the introduction of its “Hot-N-Ready” concept, offering carryout pizzas at surprisingly low prices during certain hours of the day, such as 4-8 p.m.
Founded in 1959 and franchising since 1962, there are 5,463 locations in the US and around the world.
4. Papa John’s
Papa John’s got its start back in the mid-1980s when founder John Schnatter sold his beloved 1972 Camaro Z28 for $2,800 in order to keep his father’s tavern open and converted it into a pizza shop. Papa John’s is focused more on takeout and delivery than in-store dining. It was also one of the first national chains to make online ordering available chain-wide in 2002.
Although it has struggled to find its footing in the highly competitive pizza market, it’s making headway with its back-to-basics BIBP approach – better ingredients, better pizza. Schnatter stepped down as company chairman following controversy around his use of a racial slur.
Founded in 1985 and franchising since 1986, the number of locations has continued to steadily expand in recent years to the current total of 5,347 (up from the previous total of 5,336), of which 598 are company-owned and 2,213 are located outside the US.
5. Papa Murphy’s
Papa Murphy’s claim to fame is being the only national-scale pizza chain based solely on “take and bake” pizzas assembled in the store and baked by customers at home. It was the mid-1980s when Terry Collins acquired and consolidated two existing chains, Papa Aldo’s Pizza and Murphy’s Pizza.
Papa Murphy’s emphasizes the freshness of its ingredients, noting its stores do not have freezers, dough is made fresh from scratch daily, 100% whole-milk mozzarella cheese is grated daily, and veggies are hand-sliced. The chain was recently acquired by Canadian company MTY Group, which operates more than 70 different quick-service and casual-dining restaurant brands.
Founded in 1985 and franchising since 1986, the number of locations has declined in recent years to the current total of 1,318 (down from the previous total of 1,380), of which 58 are company-owned and 34 are located outside the US.
6. Marco’s Pizza
Marco’s Pizza was recently named “Pizza Chain of the Year” in a Harris Poll EquiTrend survey of more than 77,000 people. The company was founded by Italian immigrant Pasquale “Pat” Giammarco and is the only major American pizza chain to be started by a native Italian. Restaurant industry guru Jack Butorac took over the chain in 2004 when it had just 123 locations and grew it into the national chain it is today.
Founded in 1978 and franchising since 1979, the number of locations has expanded rapidly in recent years to the current total of 973 (up from the previous total of 933), of which 41 are company-owned and 44 are located outside the US.
7. Hungry Howie’s Pizza and Subs
Hungry Howie’s Pizza and Subs claims to be the “Home of the Flavored Crust Pizza” as it was one of the first pizza chains to create flavored crusts, which it launched back in 1985 with 8 different flavors, which today include butter, butter cheese, Cajun, garlic herb, onion, ranch, sesame, and Asiago cheese. In addition to pizza, the menu at Hungry Howie’s includes calzone-style subs, chicken wings and tenders, bread, salads, and brownies.
The chain has been a latecomer to digital marketing and has learned some hard lessons along the way, but is finding success now with a fully-integrated marketing plan, supplemented by having the same point-of-sale system in all locations to quickly implement daily specials.
Founded in 1973 and franchising since 1982, the number of locations has held mostly steady in recent years and currently stands at 531 (down from the previous total of 546), of which 32 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
8. MOD Pizza
MOD Pizza was named by Nation’s Restaurant News as America’s fastest-growing restaurant chain as defined by systemwide sales, which grew by 44.7% last year at this chain featuring fast-casual individual artisan pizzas with 3-minute bake times in 800-degree ovens. The concept includes flat-rate pricing no matter how many toppings customers choose for their MOD (made-on-demand) pizza or customizable salad, a family-friendly DIY vibe, and unique locally-inspired décor at each of its locations.
Founded in 2008 by husband-and-wife team Scott and Ally Svenson in Seattle, Washington, the number of locations has grown rapidly to the current total of 429 (down from the previous total of 433) in the US and one in Canada.
Cicis is the largest pizza chain based on a buffet concept and recently rolled out its Unlimited campaign – all the pizza a customer can eat from the buffet for one surprisingly low price. And there’s typically no fewer than 15 different kinds of pizzas on the buffet line. This makes Cicis popular with families and post-event school groups.
Created in the 1980s by Joe Croce and Mike Cole in Plano, Texas, the pizza buffet at Cicis features several types of pizza, including traditional, deep-dish, rectangular flatbread, and stuffed crust. The chain is also known for offering distinctively unique creations such as macaroni and cheese pizza as well as various flavors of wings as pizza toppings.
Founded in 1985 and franchising since 1987, the number of locations has declined steadily from a high of 639 in 2009 to the last reported total of 427, of which 49 were company-owned and all of which were located in the US.
10. Round Table Pizza
Round Table Pizza was started in the late 1950s by William R. Larson, who opened the first location in Menlo Park, California. In 1961, he adopted the King Arthur and knights of the round table theme suggested by a friend. The company has been through a lot. It became entirely employee-owned in 1992. It went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011 and emerged stronger than before.
The standard format for a Round Table Pizza location focuses on pizza and salads, but there’s a new format available called Round Table Pizza Clubhouse – Pizza Pub Play with video arcade games for kids, large-screen televisions for sports viewing, a bigger menu, and a selection of craft beers. In 2017, the company was acquired by Global Franchise Group.
Founded in 1959 and franchising since 1962, the number of locations recently dropped from a high of 444 in 2016 to the current total of 420, of which 62 are company-owned and one is located outside the US.
11. Jet’s Pizza
Jet’s Pizza has been a mainstay in Michigan since the 1970s, although its presence in 20 other states has more people saying the company motto, “Let’s get Jet’s!” The company was founded by brothers Eugene and John Jetts when they decided to bring Detroit-style pizza (square deep-dish) further north of the city to Sterling Heights. Nearly half of the chain’s locations are in Michigan.
In addition to both Detroit-style and New York-style pizza, Jet’s also has two unique types of sandwiches – the Jetzee, which is like a grilled panini but made with a deep-dish dough as the bread, and the Boat, also made from pizza dough like a calzone, but open on one side. And for those looking for low-carb pizza, Jet’s has been testing an Italian-seasoned cauliflower crust pizza.
Founded in 1978 and franchising since 1990, the number of locations currently stands at 380 (down from the previous total of 383), of which 40 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
12. Blaze Pizza
Blaze Pizza recently nabbed the number one spot in Market Force’s survey of best QSR brands as chosen by consumers, edging out both Papa Murphy’s (second place) and Marco’s Pizza (third place) in the ultra-competitive pizza restaurant segment. Blaze, still considered a pizza newcomer, was started by Rick Wetzel, a co-founder of Wetzel’s Pretzels.
Executive chef Bradford Kent was enlisted to perfect an 11-inch thin crust from dough allowed to ferment a full 24 hours before getting shaped into a crust, giving Blaze pies their distinctive lighter-than-air crispness. The chain has also received a big boost from being backed by NBA megastar LeBron James and is now considering going public.
Founded in 2012 and franchising since then, the number of locations has grown rapidly to the current total of 342 (up from the previous total of 337), of which 12 are company-owned and 30 are located outside the US.
13. Mountain Mike’s Pizza
Mountain Mike’s Pizza dates back to the late 1970s when it was started in Palo Alto, California and has since expanded into Oregon, Nevada, and Utah with casual, family-friendly locations known for their crispy, curly pepperoni. Customers can build their own classic round pies or choose one of the chain’s 10 specialty pizzas, along with wings, sandwiches, salads, sides, and desserts. It markets itself as the go-to pizza spot for families, sports teams, groups, and big game nights.
Founded in 1978 and franchising since 1981, the number of locations has marched steadily up in recent years to the current total of 220 (up from the previous total of 211), none of which are company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
Donatos started out in the early 1960s when founder Jim Grote bought a pizza shop on the south side of Columbus, Ohio for $1,300 when he was a sophomore at Ohio State. The chain features Ohio-style pizza, which is a thin-crust round pie cut into square slices with toppings all the way to the edge. The chain got a big boost in 2013 when chairperson Jane Grote Abell (the founder’s daughter) appeared on the CBS reality television show Undercover Boss. Each location also serves up calzones, oven-baked subs, wings, salads, sides, and desserts.
McDonald’s bought the company back in the 1970s when it wanted to add pizza to its menu, but it didn’t work out and the Grotes bought the company back. Now Red Robin is considering adding Donatos pizza to its menu.
Founded in 1963 and franchising since 1991, the number of locations has been fairly steady in recent years and currently stands at 162, of which 54 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
15. Rosati’s Pizza
Rosati’s Pizza comes from a long history of restaurant activity in the Rosati family dating back to the 1890s. When the family moved to Chicago in the early 1900s to open more restaurants, they started experimenting with pizza.
Rosati’s main pizza offerings include Chicago Deep Dish, Chicago Thin Crust, Double-Dough (twice as thick with a unique hand-rolled edge), and Stuffed pizzas (ingredients between two crusts, baked 40 minutes and topped with sauce). Also on the menu are appetizers, calzones, pasta dishes, sandwiches, salads, fried chicken, ribs, and desserts. Most locations use deck slate ovens rather than conveyor ovens.
Founded in 1964 but franchising only since 2006, the number of locations has climbed in recent years to the current total of 152 (up from the previous total of 148), of which 10 are company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
Pieology was started by Carl Chang and serial pizza entrepreneur James Markham (Knockout Pizza, New York Style Pizza in China, MOD Pizza, and Project Pie) in 2011. Pieology offers more than 40 different choices in toppings, which are sourced locally whenever possible on a menu that also reflects local trends and tastes.
The chain recently rolled out six premium crust options (Artisan Thin, Artisan Thin Hearty Wheat, PieRise Thick, Hand-Crafted Deep Dish, Cauliflower Crust, and Gluten Free) and several plant-based proteins that look and taste like meat but are made from veggies, including “Beef Meatballs,” “Spicy Italian Sausage Rounds,” and “Diced Chicken.”
Founded in 2011, the company website currently lists 119 locations.
17. Ledo Pizza
Ledo Pizza has made a name for itself as a regional pizza franchise known for its unique square pizzas. Every pizza is rolled to order from fresh-made dough. Company president James Beall is proud of his family’s long history with pizza, which dates back to his grandfather opening the first Ledo shop in 1955 in Adelphi, Maryland. Round pizza pans weren’t common back then, and Ledo’s has stuck with the rectangular pans it started out with. As it says on the company website, “It may take a little longer, but it sure is worth it.”
Ledo is also known for its extra-thick pepperoni slices. In addition to pizza, the menu includes appetizers, salads, calzones and strombolis, a variety of subs and sandwiches, Italian entrées, and soups.
Founded in 1955 and franchising since 1989, the number of locations has held fairly steady in recent years and currently stands at 110 (up from the previous total of 102), none of which are company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
18. Pizza Factory
Pizza Factory has a motto: “We toss ‘em, they’re awesome” and has been making hand-tossed thick-crust round pizzas since the late 1970s when the first location was opened in Oakhurst, California. Menus for this chain vary by location, but in addition to pizza, most also offer calzones, salads, breads, wings, pastas, and sandwiches.
CEO Mary Jane Riva has talked about her strategy of targeting smaller towns (10,000 residents or less) where better real estate deals can be found, as well as having more of an impact on the local community.
Founded in 1979 and franchising since 1985, the number of locations has declined from a high of 128 in 2008 to the current total 98 (down from the previous total of 103), only one of which is company-owned and all of which are located in the US.
19. Uno Pizzeria & Grill
Uno Pizzeria & Grill dates all the way back to the early 1940s in Chicago when Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo popularized the deep-dish pizza concept, although whether or not they invented the idea is disputed. Franchising began in the late 70s and at its height, the chain boasted more than 200 locations.
It has undergone menu expansions and contractions as well as several name changes over the years as it has struggled to establish its identity and brand. Throughout its ups and downs, however, Uno remains the chain most closely associated with deep-dish pizza.
Founded in 1943 and franchising since 1978, the number of locations listed on the company website includes 78 domestic locations (down from the previous total of 88), one international location in India, and another coming soon in Saudi Arabia.
20. Toppers Pizza
Toppers Pizza is a midwestern chain that doesn’t hide its ambition to fight its way to the top of the pizza industry through great pizza, awesome culture, and state-of-the-art ordering. It targets the 18-34 crowd interested in late-night pizza delivery and carry-out, with most stores staying open until 3 a.m. or later. This is also why it focuses on digital ordering. As the company website puts it: “…order it at the counter, over the phone, go to the Website, apps, text messaging, Alexa, YOUR TENNIS SHOES! Any way you can dream of ordering it, boom, it’s there.”
In addition to pizza, the chain offers seven styles of Topperstix (breadsticks) and seven different versions of buffalo wings.
Founded by Scott Gittrich after he became frustrated with the national pizza chain he worked for, the company website lists 68 locations (up from the previous total of 55), all of which are located in the US.
21. Your Pie
Your Pie founder Drew French’s eyes were opened to new pizza possibilities while honeymooning on the small Italian island of Ischia in 2006. Two years later, at the age of 23, he opened the first Your Pie location in Athens, Georgia, making him one of the pioneers in the fast-casual pizza movement. There was a learning curve for early customers, many of whom found eight sauces, eight cheeses, and around 40 toppings overwhelming.
The chain offers customizable artisan 10-inch pizzas with fresh dough made from scratch daily and baked in brick ovens. Pizza lovers can also choose one of Your Pie’s seven signature pies as well as order custom panini sandwiches.
Founded in 2008 and franchising since that same year, the number of locations now stands at 66 (up from the previous total of 57), of which one is company-owned and all are located in the US.
22. LaRosa’s Pizzeria
LaRosa’s Pizzeria dates back to the mid-1950s when the first location was opened in Cincinnati, Ohio by Donald “Buddy” LaRosa and several partners including Richard “Muzzie” Minella, Mike Soldano, and Frank “Head” Serraino. The chain’s round pies feature crust choices that include traditional thin, hand tossed, crispy pan, or artisan wheat. Customers can customize their pies or choose from among five classic specialty pizzas or four deluxe pizzas. It also serves three different oval-shaped flatbread pizzas on a multigrain wheat crust. The menu also includes starters, wings, soups, salads, calzones, hoagies, pasta, and desserts.
LaRosa’s is the exclusive pizza served in a number of different venues, including Kings Island and Coney Island amusement parks, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Riverbend Music Center, Perfect North Slopes, and the Great American Ball Park (home of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team).
Founded in 1954 and franchising since 1967, the number of locations has been steady in recent years at the last total reported in 2018 of 63, of which 11 were company-owned and all were located in the US.
23. Pie Five Pizza Co.
Pie Five Pizza Co. was started by Rave Restaurant Group as part of the new wave of quick-made handcrafted personal pizzas, with the “five” in the company’s name referring to the length of time it takes to prepare a pizza at the chain. It offers unlimited topping choices at one price to go with its made-fresh-daily crusts that include crispy artisan thin, classic pan, traditional Italian, gluten-free, and a low-carb cauliflower crust. Further customization comes with six sauces, five cheeses, 16 veggies, eight meats, and seven more “fresh finishes” like fresh basil, chopped cilantro, crumbled feta, and so on. The menu is rounded out with both hand-made salads and desserts.
The company was growing rapidly from its founding in 2011 up through 2016 when it reached 88 locations but has been declining ever since to the current total of 43, none of which are company-owned and all are in the US.
24. MidiCi Neapolitan Pizza
MidiCi Neapolitan Pizza differentiates itself in the fast-casual artisan pizza niche by its devotion to the 300-year-old tradition of Neapolitan pizza-making, which requires fresh dough made from scratch with only four ingredients (zero or double zero flour, water, sea salt, and live brewer’s yeast) that is hand-stretch and baked for 60-90 seconds in a wood-fired oven maintained at a temperature of at least 905°F. The chain can also be described as “upscale” fast casual in its approach and ambiance, including its open, center-stage kitchen.
Founded in 2015 by Menchie’s frozen yogurt CEO Amit Kleinberger and franchising since that same year, there are now around 42 locations, with more on the way.
25. Paisano’s Pizza
Paisano’s Pizza is a fairly standard pizza chain using dough made fresh daily for its round New York-style pies. Customers can build-their-own or choose one of 10 gourmet pizzas, along with appetizers, wings, salads, calzones, strombolis, Italian entrées (pasta and more), subs and burgers, other sandwiches, and desserts.
The company has made use of hockey players from the Washington Capitals team in recent ads, including Andre Burakovsky and Devante Smith-Pelly promoting the chain’s occasional Sunday BOGO (buy one, get one free) offer. It has also enlisted athletes from other area teams, including basketball players from the Wizards.
Founded in 1998 and franchising since 2009, the number of locations currently stands at 38, of which 13 are company-owned and all are located in the US. Most of the locations are in Virginia and Maryland, near Washington, DC, with one in Florida.
PizzaRev was launched in Los Angeles by Irv Zuckerman and Nicholas Eckerman. Their aim in 2012 was to ride the “pizzarev-olution” wave of craft-your-own individual-sized artisan pizzas. PizzaRev’s potential for scale and growth attracted former McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson and his venture-capital firm, Cleveland Avenue, to purchase a majority stake in the fast-growing chain, although it hasn’t grown much in the last couple years. PizzaRev offers 11-inch pizzas crafted with original or gluten-free dough, both of which are vegan, baked in under three minutes in 900-degree ovens.
Founded in 2011 and franchising since 2013, the number of locations currently listed on the company website stands at 12, with eight in California and one each in Louisiana, New York, South Dakota, and Virginia.
An Important Note About Our Methodology
The franchises on this list were ranked according to the number of units in the franchise system. If you are a prospective franchisee searching for franchise opportunities that meet or exceed certain performance benchmarks for sales, profits, and return on investment, please check out this list of America’s Most Lucrative Franchises.