Revised and updated December 24, 2020.
Since Richard and Maurice McDonald opened their first restaurant in California in 1940, burger chains have grown into a huge business. Now they’re one of the biggest groups of franchise businesses in the world, an industry that grows even during economic downturns.
Hamburgers are among the most popular fast foods, and the industry includes the most powerful single fast food brand in the form of McDonald’s. In 2019, the company had the highest value of sales in the US at over $40 billion, nearly twice its nearest quick service restaurant rival. McDonald’s alone had 13,900 outlets in 2019, and while leading rivals in the coffee and sandwich sectors have more outlets, they can’t match the leading burger chain for sales.
The convenience and low cost of food from hamburger franchises has helped fuel their success even in financially tough times. During the post-2008 recession, fast food outlets introduced new deals on top of already competitively priced menus, protecting their business base, and consumer spending on fast food increased. In normal times, nearly 83% of US consumers eat at quick-service restaurants at least once a week, and much of this business goes to burger franchises.
Hamburger franchises succeed by striking a careful balance between the familiar and the novel. New items appear on the menu from time to time, often with great fanfare if they’re at the bigger chains, but they don’t tend to deviate far from the concept of burger and fries, and the aesthetic and core products remain consistent. Burgers are a comfort food whose appeal is grounded in knowing what you’ll get.
In recent years, burger franchises have tried to shake off their image as an unhealthy and environmentally destructive choice, an image sharpened by the drawn-out McLibel court case of the 1990s. While they’re never going to be seen as the cleanest option, healthier recipes and new menu options have allowed them to appeal to a larger market, while initiatives such as sustainably sourced packaging have helped with the environmental image. McDonald’s tarnished image has helped other franchises, as concerned customers didn’t suddenly stop craving burgers, and so have turned to other brands.
The hamburger franchising landscape seems to be opening up, with more competitors able to stand alongside the giants. Five Guys quickly sold out of its North American franchises after launching its franchising system. An increasingly wide range of burger franchises are available, while big players like McDonald’s keep on selling franchise rights as the most profitable way for them to run their business.
Hamburger franchises tend to have low profit margins on their products but benefit from the high volumes of business they do. This is a high intensity business, one of the fastest of fast foods. Customers are looking for speed and convenience, and this lets restaurants cater to large numbers of customers in a small amount of time.
McDonald’s introduced the burger drive-thru in 1975, to cater to soldiers who couldn’t leave their vehicles while in uniform. The concept has since been extended hugely, making burgers a popular choice for hungry consumers in a rush. It has also provided some burger franchises with extra resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they can sell products to drive-thru customers with minimal direct contact, reducing infection risks and the costs of adapting to limit these risks.
Some burger franchises have recently branched out into delivery, usually by partnering with delivery companies. While this can make the meal a little more expensive for customers, convenience is a big draw. Like drive-thru and takeaway, delivery has helped hamburger restaurants to stay active during the COVID-19 pandemic. With people unable to eat out and seeking comfort food, franchises that catered to the eat-out market were among the more successful.
As conditions have improved in some areas, and vaccines promise an end to the pandemic, eat-in is returning, while deliveries and take-away remain strong.
An over-saturated market has meant that some hamburger chains were already facing closures before the pandemic hit. Burger King announced 250 closures in 2019, and COVID has accelerated the end of struggling stores. As business picks up again in 2021, strong franchises will be in a position to fill the gaps left by these closures. As a dining style that flourishes in tough financial times, hamburger franchises will also be resilient against the impact of COVID, and may even benefit from this downturn, as cash-strapped consumers look for inexpensive ways to treat themselves.
Hamburger chains provide cheap, convenient food that’s familiar and comforting for millions of customers. The vast marketing budgets of the biggest chains mean that burgers are at the forefront of consumers’ minds when they think of fast food, cutting through the noise of competing options. Although many people talk a good game around eating healthier, cheap and convenient still wins for most people, and so hamburger franchises flourish.
The Top Hamburger Franchises of 2021
McDonald’s has been around for nearly 60 years and yet continues to utterly dominate not only the quick-service burger segment, but franchises in general. It keeps up with the times by offering just enough in the way of healthier alternatives, more humane and eco-friendly ingredients, and the latest technological trends such as touch-screen ordering kiosks. It’s even going to begin testing a Beyond Meat plant-based burger offering in Canada called the PLT (plant, lettuce, tomato).
Founded in 1955 and franchising since then, the number of locations has continued its upward march and now stands at a mind-boggling 39,020 (up from the previously reported total of 38,108), of which 2,649 are company-owned, 13,175 are US franchises, and 23,196 are located outside the US.
2. Burger King
Burger King may have beaten McDonald’s to the punch by rolling out a meatless burger option by Impossible Foods nationwide, but it won’t make up for the fact that it remains a distant second to the Golden Arches.
Burger King now operates as a subsidiary of Canadian company Restaurant Brands International (RBI), which also owns and operates the Tim Hortons and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen franchises. Brazilian investment company 3G Capital maintains a 51% stake in RBI. Burger King is making inroads into new international markets as it recently signed over exclusive development rights for the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to a company called Tallink Grupp.
Founded in 1954 by James McLamore and David Edgerton, the number of locations currently stands at 18,838 across 100 countries (up from the previously reported total of 17,796), of which only 52 are company-owned.
Wendy’s has been known for decades for its “old-fashioned” square burgers and its thick Frosty frozen dairy dessert, but it is also in the midst of a major brand refresh that includes remodeling existing stores with fireplaces, more seating options, WiFi, flat screen TVs, and digital menus.
The brand was given its biggest boost back in the 1980s with its famous “where’s the beef” campaign, and after that for its many commercials featuring founder Dave Thomas. He passed away in 2002, and the company hasn’t had a truly effective ad campaign since then.
Founded in 1969 by Dave Thomas in Columbus, Ohio and franchising since 1971, the number of locations currently stands at 6,788 (up from the previously reported total of 6,711), of which 357 are company-owned and 936 are located outside the US in 30 different countries.
4. Sonic Drive-In Restaurants
Sonic Drive-In Restaurants are like a throwback to the drive-in diners of the 1950s. Customers can pull into covered drive-in stalls, place orders over an intercom, and have the food delivered by carhops, who are often on roller skates. Many locations also feature patio seating, indoor seating, and drive-thru service.
The chain was recently acquired by Inspire Brands, a company that also owns and operates other franchises such as Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Rusty Taco, and Jimmy John’s.
Founded by Troy Smith in Shawnee, Oklahoma in 1953 and franchising since 1959, the number of locations has increased only slightly in recent years to the current total of 3,525 (down from the previously reported total of 3,615), of which 271 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
5. Jack in the Box
Jack in the Box is a burger chain, to be sure, and yet its best-selling product is its taco, which has been on its menu from the beginning, making it a unique entry on this list. Customers will always find 13 different signature burgers on the menu, a few of which change over time as the company creates new offerings. After nearly being destroyed by a 1993 series of E. coli deaths and illnesses caused by its food, the chain made a big comeback with humorous commercials featuring the character of Jack with his ping pong ball-like head.
Founded by Robert Peterson in San Diego, California in 1951 and franchising since 1982, the number of locations has held relatively steady in recent years with a last reported total of 2,242 (2018), of which 157 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
Hardee’s has operated as a subsidiary of CKE Restaurants, a company that also operates the Carl’s Jr. chain of quick-service burger restaurants, since 1997. After a time during which the brands were merged, they now operate more independently of each other. Hardee’s also decided to move away from the highly sexualized ads of the 2000s to focus on more family-friendly messaging. Carl’s Jr., on the other hand, has continued its racy ads. Hardee’s is also undergoing a brand refresh with a more “country” look that includes NASCAR features and reclaimed wood.
Founded by Wilber Hardee in Greenville, North Carolina in 1960 and franchising since 1962, the number of locations has declined slightly in recent years to the current total of 2,194 (down from the previously reported total of 2,229), of which 207 are company-owned and 409 are located outside the US.
7. Carl’s Jr.
Carl’s Jr. was an early adopter of the meatless burger option. Working with vegan patty maker Beyond Meat, the chain rolled out its Beyond Famous Star Burger in December 2018 and has since sold more than 4.4 million of them, making it the most successful burger launch for the company in recent years.
Founded by Carl and Margaret Karcher in Anaheim, California in 1945 and franchising since 1984, the number of locations has expanded in recent years from 1,171 in 2008 to the current total of 1,653 (down from the previously reported total of 1,656), of which 59 are company-owned and 558 are located outside the US.
8. Five Guys Burgers & Fries
Five Guys Burgers & Fries decided it was time to franchise their concept in 2003, and sold an eye-popping 300 franchises in only 18 months. And it did all that without any paid advertising, relying instead on word-of-mouth.
Its menu features cooked-to-order hand-shaped burgers that can be enhanced with any or all of its 15 free toppings, hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, and veggie sandwiches. The only side available is the company’s fresh-cut fries. It’s also known for its complimentary in-shell roasted peanuts – and lots of signage to warn those who might be allergic.
Founded by Janie and Jerry Murrell (and eventually including all five of their sons: Jim, Matt, Chad, Ben, and Tyler) in the suburbs of Washington, DC in 1986 and franchising since 2003, the company currently claims “nearly 1,500” locations around the world, which is less than the “more than 1,600” previously referenced in the company’s media fact sheet.
9. Checkers and Rally’s
Checkers and Rally’s used to be two separate double-drive-thru burger chains who decided in 1999 that it made more sense to combine forces as one company, though with separate but similar branding. By efficiently serving only drive-thru customers with double lanes for efficiency, the small real estate footprint can be very economical and profitable.
The company recently chose Mobivity to power its mobile customer engagement programs, and has partnered with five different platforms for delivery service, including Uber Eats, DoorDash, Postmates, Grubhub, and Amazon Restaurants under one point-of-sale system.
Founded in 1986 and franchising since 1989, the number of locations has held relatively steady in recent years and currently stands at 859 (down from the previously reported total of 862), of which 254 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
Whataburger (not to be confused with the much smaller What-A-Burger chain in Virginia and the Carolinas) was a family-operated private company until recently, when the Dobson family sold its majority stake to Chicago-based investment company BDT Capital. The stores serve up the company’s signature burgers 24/7, and it just recently launched a brand-new breakfast burger featuring a junior patty stacked with hash browns, cheese, egg, bacon, and a creamy pepper sauce.
Founded by Harmon Dobson in 1950 in Corpus Christi, Texas and franchising since then, company press releases currently claim more than 840 locations in 10 states, which is an increase from previous statements that referenced 820 locations.
11. Johnny Rockets
Johnny Rockets is a throwback to the diners and malt shops of the 1940s and 1950s. The décor includes period Coca-Cola advertising, nearly life-size cardboard illustrations of women in different World War II uniforms, individual jukebox stations, plenty of chrome accents, and vintage-style red vinyl seats. The menu features eight signature burgers, fries, shakes, starters, salads, sandwiches, and more.
Founded by award-winning fashion retailer Ronn Teitelbaum in Los Angeles, California in 1986 and franchising since 1987, The number of locations has been on the rise in recent years from 293 in 2012 to the current total of 402, of which 23 are company-owned and 199 are located outside the US.
Smashburger is a hybrid concept of counter and table service where customers place orders at a counter but the food is then brought to the table. The chain’s name comes from the method used to cook its burgers. A ball of ground beef is “smashed” on the grill with a custom tool that looks like a small iron. Each patty is smashed, seasoned, and seared to order in just two minutes and forty-five seconds. The burger can then be customized with bun and topping choices and is served open-face so customers can see all the toppings.
The company has been purchased by Jollibee Foods Corporation, which is looking to reinvigorate the brand’s slowing growth. Founded by fast-food restaurant veterans Rick Schaden and Tom Ryan in 2007 and franchising since 2008, the company website says there are currently more than 340 corporate and franchise restaurants operating in 37 states and nine countries.
Fatburger has the goal of serving up burgers so big and loaded that one can serve as a meal in and of itself. The menu features various sizes of hamburgers cooked-to-order along with sandwiches, salads, fries, and onion rings. Like a growing number of burger chains, Fatburger has rolled out a meatless option called the Impossible Burger in partnership with Impossible Foods.
Founded by Lovie Yancie in Los Angeles, California in 1947, the number of locations has grown from 97 in 2010 to the current total of 161, of which none are company-owned and 83 are located outside the US.
14. Wayback Burgers
Wayback Burgers has a menu featuring several signature burgers along with hot dogs, seven other sandwich options, chicken tenders, milkshakes, salads, and a variety of sides including fries and house-made potato chips. Unlike many competitors, some locations offer delivery service. The chain recently chose Boys and Girls Clubs of America as its primary charitable giving recipient.
Founded by John Carter in Newark, Delaware in 1991 and franchising since 2006, the number of locations has steadily climbed over the past 10 years from 35 in 2010 to the current total of 148, of which five are company-owned and 15 are located outside the US.
BurgerFi is a recent entrant into the better burger movement with its coffee-house vibe. It serves up both meat and meatless burgers in buns branded with the company name, hot dogs, sides, shakes, and frozen custard along with draft beer, craft microbrews, and wine. BurgerFi prides itself on using 100% natural Angus beef free of hormones, steroids, and antibiotics. In fact, the company was one of only two burger chains to receive an “A” grade from Consumer Reports for its use of antibiotic-free beef.
Founded by John Rosatti in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida in 2011 and franchising since then, the number of locations has grown to 117 (up from the previously reported total of 108), of which 21 are company-owned and five are located outside the US.
16. Farmer Boys
Farmer Boys serves up eight different farm-fresh signature burgers, salads, sandwiches, and cooked-to-order breakfast food. It is committed to locally sourcing its farm-fresh products, including milk, lettuce, buns and breads, orange juice, apples, and ice cream.
Founded by brothers Makis and Chris Havadjias in Perris, California in 1981 and franchising since 1997, the number of locations has expanded in recent years from 69 in 2012 to the current total of 96, of which 31 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
17. Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes
Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes is a fast-casual “better burger” chain with 16 creative signature burgers along with turkey burgers, veggie burgers, hot dogs, fries, and shakes. The company is now owned by private equity firm Balmoral Funds, LLC and Gala Capital Partners.
Founded by experienced restaurateurs Rich Hicks and Todd Istre in 2007 and franchising since then, the number of locations has recently declined from a high of 100 in 2016 to the current total of 83, of which only one is company-owned and six are located outside the US.
18. Elevation Burger
Elevation Burger is the only chain on this list with a primary focus on sustainable, organic fresh food, including burgers, fries, shakes, and malts. It also prides itself on eco-friendly operations, with each of its buildings being LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified from the United States Green Building Council, along with energy-efficient equipment and plenty of recycling.
Fat Brands, a company that also owns a variety of other chains, including Fatburger, Buffalo’s World Famous Wings, Bonanza Steakhouse, Ponderosa Steakhouse, Hurricane Grill and Wings, and Yalla Mediterranean, recently purchased the chain for $10 million.
Founded by husband-and-wife team Hans and April Hess in Falls Church, Virginia in 2005 and franchising since 2008, the company website lists 41 locations, with 21 in the US and 20 in the Middle East (12 in Kuwait, 5 in Bahrain, and 3 in Qatar).
CaliBurger was conceptualized to bring better burgers to parts of the world that love everything California. It wasn’t until four years after its founding that it opened its first location in the US. CaliBurger promotes itself as an improvement over In-N-Out Burger, another popular California burger chain. The chain made media headlines when it adopted the use of “Flippy,” a burger-flipping robotic arm serving as a kitchen assistant.
Founded by Jeff Miller and franchising since 2013, there are now 33 locations, with five in the US (another two “coming soon”) and another 28 in 12 countries around the world.
20. The Counter Custom Burgers
The Counter Custom Burgers serves up what it claims to be more than a million possible burger combinations using 7 proteins, 13 cheeses, 34 toppings, 21 sauces, and 11 types of buns (or served on fresh greens for those avoiding carbs). The concept is a full-service, casual dining experience featuring industrial décor and upbeat music. The chain’s unique take on the ordering process is to hand customers a clipboard with a list of ingredients so they can check off what they want on each customized burger. The menu also features other sandwiches, sides, desserts, beers, and wines.
Founded by Jeff Weinstein in Santa Monica, California in 2003 and franchising since 2005, the number of locations peaked at 41 in 2015 and has declined since then to the current total of 32, of which five are company-owned and six are located outside the US.
21. Burger 21
Burger 21 is an upscale burger concept that presents 21 chef-inspired innovative burgers along with signature hand-spun shakes, hot dogs, salads, sides, and desserts with a kind of hipster vibe. On the menus and walls are found lots of “B-isms” that capture the spirit of the chain: “B-saucy,” “B-different,” “B-comfortable,” “B-involved,” and so forth. On the 21st of each month, every location donates 10% of the day’s proceeds to a local charity or school.
Founded by The Melting Pot owners Mark and Arlene Johnston in Tampa, Florida in 2010 and franchising since 2011, there are now 19 locations listed on the company website.
22. BGR – Burgers Grilled Right
BGR – Burgers Grilled Right (formerly, BGR The Burger Joint) grills its burgers on an open flame not just to order but also to temperature. The menu features a rotating selection of specialty burgers such as In Guac We Trust, Hawaiian, The Gobbler, Caprese, Buffalo Blue, Chili Mac, AuPoivre, Sriracha Me Crazy, Korean BBQ, The Reuben, and many others.
Founded by Mark Bucher in Bethesda, Maryland in 2008, there are currently 18 locations, with 16 in the US and two in Kuwait.
23. Big Smoke Burger
Big Smoke Burger is a Canadian better burger chain with a menu featuring a dozen handcrafted, grilled-to-order signature gourmet burgers, classic burgers, chicken burgers, premium poutines, other sides, and milkshakes.
Founded by Mustafa Yusuf in Toronto in 2007 and franchising since 2011, there were as many as 22 locations in 2018, but the last known total was 11, with eight in Canada and three in the United Arab Emirates.
24. Liberty Burger
Liberty Burger is a family-owned burger chain committed to sourcing its bread from local bakeries using only American-grown ingredients along with meats from responsible sources (single-herd grass-fed beef and bison, minimally processed without stimulants, hormones, or unnecessary antibiotics). The menu features around a dozen creatively-named burger options along with a few other sandwiches, sides, and desserts. The chain also features wine, Texas-brewed craft beers, and Adult Shakes infused with various liqueurs and other spirits.
Founded by siblings Mariel Street and Gene Street, Jr. in 2011 in Dallas, Texas and franchising since 2014, the company website currently lists six locations, with five in Texas and one in Jackson, Wyoming.
25. BUILT Custom Burgers
BUILT Custom Burgers is a better burger concept featuring humanely raised and handled, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, vegetarian-fed, 100% natural beef, all-natural chicken and turkey, and vegan veggie burgers made fresh daily. It’s essentially the fast-casual version of The Counter Custom Burgers, and was created by the same team. Customers begin by ordering the basics – the kind of patty (the protein), cheese, bun (or none), and then work their way down an assembly line to choose from among the many toppings, sides, and beverages.
The fledgling chain has been acquired by Canadian multi-brand franchisor MTY Food Group Inc. and its subsidiary, Kahala Brands. Founded in 2013 and franchising since 2014, there are currently five locations with one each in North Carolina (Durham), California (Los Angeles), Arizona (Tucson), Florida (Orlando), and Canada (Toronto).
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.