Revised and updated December 27, 2020.
Chicken has become an increasingly popular fast food choice in recent years. Initially driven by the relatively low price of chicken, this trend has turned into a wider shift, as people have developed a taste for chicken and for the brands associated with it. Burger businesses have added chicken options to their menus, while chicken joints gobble up customers from their competitors.
Franchised brands dominate the chicken market. The top eight chicken chains by number of restaurants in the US are all franchises, and KFC, the largest franchised chain, has nine times as many restaurants as the most extensive non-franchise competitor. This is an industry driven by franchising opportunities.
That model, combined with a public taste for chicken in America and beyond, has led to great growth for the franchised chicken industry. In the US, the fast food chicken franchise industry grew an average of 6.6% per year from 2015 to 2020, growing faster than the overall economy. It employed over 500,000 people in over 21,000 businesses. The industry went into 2020 with a value of $36.5 billion and an expectation of 6% growth, and while this expectation is unlikely to be met, chicken franchises are likely to emerge from 2020 stronger than many others.
At the top end of the chicken franchising chain, developments at restaurant giant Yum Brands have created more opportunities for franchisees. Though most people haven’t heard of Yum, it’s one of the most important players in the whole fast food industry, the company behind Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC, the single largest and most successful chicken brand.
In 2016, 77% of the restaurants linked to Yum’s brands were franchises, while the company directly owned 10,000 restaurants of its own. But that year, the company announced a change of strategy, in which it set out to re-franchise company-owned businesses, making 98% of its restaurants into franchises. The aim of this strategy was to reduce costs and risks while maximizing opportunities for expansion by offloading the direct business of running restaurants. Since then, the company has sold off a huge number of restaurants, including thousands of KFC franchises, creating opportunities for franchise entrepreneurs.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a mixed impact for fast food restaurants in general and chicken franchises in particular. The risks of infection led to authorities in some areas closing down in-restaurant eating. Even in some areas where in-restaurant eating was still allowed, business owners took the choice to close their dining rooms rather than incur the risks of remaining open and the costs involved in minimizing those risks. KFC closed dining rooms in corporate-owned restaurants in high-risk areas, while encouraging franchisees to do the same.
But many chicken businesses have strong takeaway and delivery options, and these boomed during the pandemic. Unable to eat out due to closures, or unwilling to do so because of the risks, many people chose to eat more takeaway instead. Restaurants hastily reoriented the focus of their businesses and put safety measures in place to ensure safe pick up of food. There were even publicity opportunities, such as KFC giving away one million pieces of chicken to help feed people during the disruption of the pandemic.
Wingstop had its best quarter since 2015 during the pandemic, with same-store sales up 28% year-on-year. This was achieved by focusing on online ordering and delivery, which allowed the chain to keep serving customers while restaurants were closed, and even to expand its customer base, as people sought alternatives to eating out. Church’s Chicken, which was already working to expand its focus on drive-thru food, doubled down on this during the pandemic, and saw drive-thru business expand by 15-20% in four months. By the beginning of May, demand for chicken by quick service restaurants was already back to nearly pre-pandemic levels.
Measures taken during the pandemic will lead to long-term changes for some chains. Church’s Chicken, with its shift toward drive-thru, is reducing the size of its restaurants while rolling out new delivery and payment systems to franchisees. This sort of support will help franchises to thrive during the later stages of the pandemic. Vaccination will soon allow restaurants to re-open with their brands strengthened by the service they have provided to isolated customers during the pandemic.
Chicken chains have shown a lot of strength in marketing in recent years, with a willingness to push the envelope and take risks in return for a higher public profile. There have been entertaining Twitter fights between rival brands, encouraging customers to pick a side, and KFC has created a Lifetime mini-movie featuring a sexy Colonel Sanders, which attracted the attention both of romance movie lovers and of a more ironic crowd delighted by its cheesy excess. These marketing strategies create strong, well-recognized brands that give franchised chicken restaurants the attention they need to take flight.
The Top Chicken Franchises of 2021
KFC launched its Hot Nashville Chicken recipe back in 2015, but just gave it a boost by coming out with Hot Nashville Chicken and Waffles.
Founded in 1930 by Harlan “Colonel” Sanders and franchising since 1952, the number of locations has continued its steady upward march in recent years and now stands at 24,394 (up from the previously reported total of 23,103). All this recent growth for the chain has come from international expansion, which has exploded in the last three years to 20,098 locations outside the US. Meanwhile, the number of domestic locations has declined recently from 4,387 in 2008 to the current total of 3,969.
Also, the number of company-owned units has been drastically reduced from its recent high of 5,321 in 2016 to only 327. This process is known as “refranchising” company-owned locations, which has been a recent trend with large restaurant chains in order to boost margins.
2. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen has strong Cajun roots, which it puts front-and-center throughout its menu with Cajun-style fried chicken, red beans and rice, Cajun fries, mashed potatoes with Cajun-style gravy, Cajun rice, chicken-and-sausage jambalaya, and po’ boy sandwiches.
In August 2019, the chain launched a chicken sandwich that started the chicken sandwich wars. It underestimated demand and was sold out within weeks. Needless to say, they scrambled to get more supply in the pipeline to bring it back.
Founded in 1972 and franchising since 1976, the number of locations has been on the rise during the past decade from 1,945 in 2010 to the current total of 3,377 (up from the previously reported total of 3,166), of which 41 are company-owned and 850 are located outside the US.
Chick-fil-A often gets named as America’s favorite fast-food joint by various restaurant magazines, but it’s not without its challenges. Its nod to the South Baptist values of founder Truett Cathy include closing on Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, which is basically unheard of in the cut-throat competitive world of fast-food chains. And it seems to work given that the chain makes more than double the sales of KFC ($10 billion versus $4.4 billion) even though KFC has significantly more locations!
Founded by Truett Cathy in 1946 in Hapeville, Georgia, the number of locations has risen to the current total of 2,664 (up from the previously reported total of 2,360), all of which are company-owned but operated by hand-picked “franchisees” who pay a $10,000 fee to undergo rigorous training to become a location’s operator. The chain’s attempts at international expansion have largely failed beyond a handful of locations in Canada.
4. Church’s Chicken
Church’s Chicken has had several different owners over the past 30 years, including AFC Enterprises, Arcapita, and Friedman Fleischer & Lowe – and the latest owner is looking to sell it in spite of its enviable position in the chicken restaurant market.
This quick-serve chain has a menu featuring home-style fare including Original and Spicy chicken, Tender Strips, and chicken sandwiches, along with chicken fried steak and a selection of seafood dishes, classic sides, and made-from-scratch biscuits served up with a healthy dose of southern hospitality.
Founded by George W. Church in San Antonio, Texas in 1952 and franchising since 1969, the number of locations has declined a bit in recent years from 1,693 in 2010 to the current total of 1,574 (up from the previously reported total of 1,550), of which 162 are company-owned and 533 are located outside the US (where it is sometimes branded as Texas Chicken).
Wingstop specializes in wings, offering fans classic wings, boneless wings, and tenders (breaded strips of chicken) that they can dip in 11 different sauces ranging from mild to Atomic (its hottest). It also offers side dishes such as hand-cut fries, beans, and coleslaw made fresh daily. But a simple menu hasn’t held it back from growing by leaps and bounds, and seeing its stock price quadruple since it went public in 2015.
Founded in 1994 and franchising since 1998, the number of locations has more than tripled in the past ten years from 472 in 2010 to the current total of 1,436 (up from the previously reported total of 1,385), of which 30 are company-owned and 162 are located outside the US.
Chester’s has a secret family recipe for its fried chicken that it has been using since the beginning. In addition to its many chicken offerings, the menu also has breakfast items, wraps, salads, sides, and desserts.
Although franchisees can go for a standalone Chester’s restaurant, this is a chain that has found success by offering a variety of “restaurant-in-store” franchise options. Supermarkets can modify their deli departments to include Chester’s food products. It also has a presence in many colleges and universities, airports, convenience stores, and truck stops (such as 113 Love’s Travel Stops).
Founded by W.O. Giles in 1952 but franchising only since 2004, the number of locations has more than tripled during the past decade from 427 in 2010 to the current total of 1,347 (up from the previously reported total of 1,286), none of which are company-owned and 43 of which are located outside the US.
7. Buffalo Wild Wings
Buffalo Wild Wings is a full-service restaurant and sports bar. Although it is best known for its buffalo-style chicken wings and 12 sauces, the menu also features plenty of other choices, including appetizers, burgers, tacos, salads, and desserts along with beer and wine. Every location also has no fewer than 50 large-screen televisions for customers to enjoy watching their favorite sports.
Founded by James Disbrow and Scott Lowery in Columbus, Ohio in 1982 and franchising since 1991, the number of locations has grown steadily in recent years from 732 in 2010 to 1,276 in 2018 but has since declined slightly to the current total of 1,271 (down from the previously reported total of 1,274), of which 682 are company-owned and 55 are located outside the US.
Zaxby’s has grown its brand in recent years through ads showing all kinds of celebrities eating their food. The chain has also benefited from a variety of sponsorships, including a contract to sell its food at the basketball and football games of 30 different Division I colleges, and a number of NASCAR sponsorships. It has also been doing movie promotionals as well as an “Insane Music Tour” that brings country music star Jordan Rager to Zaxby’s locations for free 30-minute concerts.
The fast-food chain’s menu features chicken wings, chicken fingers, sandwiches, and salads.
Founded by Zach McLeroy and Tony Townley in Statesboro, Georgia in 1990 and franchising since 1994, the number of locations has grown in recent years from 502 in 2010 to the current total of 906, of which 146 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
9. Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits
Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits brings customers lots of Cajun-style items on its fast-food menu, including Cajun-style seasoned fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, jambalaya, Cajun rice, red beans and rice, mashed potatoes with Cajun gravy, and Cajun fries. The offerings are rounded out with several sandwiches, seafood dishes, and desserts. The chain recently re-introduced its Pork Chop Griller Biscuit sandwich for a limited time.
Founded by Jack Fulk and Richard Thomas in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1977 and franchising since 1978, the number of locations nearly doubled from 437 in 2008 to 766 in 2018 but has since declined to the current total of 749 (down from the previously reported total of 764), of which 312 are company-owned and three are located outside the US.
10. El Pollo Loco
El Pollo Loco (The Crazy Chicken) positions itself as different from most of the restaurant chains on this list because it doesn’t have fried chicken on its menu at all. Instead, it specializes in fire-grilled chicken, which it touts as a healthier alternative to most fast-food fried chicken.
Whole chickens are marinated in a special recipe of herbs, spices, fruit juices, and garlic, then fire-grilled, hand-cut, and served as various creative chicken meals and in burritos, salads, soups, tacos, quesadillas. The chain’s guacamole, salsas, and dressings are also homemade.
Founded by Pancho Ochoa in Guasave, Mexico in 1975 and then moving to the US in 1980, there are now “more than 475” referenced in recent press releases from the company, down from the 485 locations previously listed on the company website.
11. Champs Chicken
Champs Chicken is a fried chicken restaurant chain with a menu featuring chicken tenders, chicken dippers (eight different sauces), ChampStix (chicken-on-a-stick), fried shrimp, hushpuppies, and a variety of comfort-food extras like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, collard greens, buttered corn, seasoned green beans, red beans and rice, and candied cinnamon apples for dessert.
Founded by Shawn and Julie Burcham in Willard, Missouri in 1998 but franchising only since 2013, the number of locations peaked at 418 in 2016 and has been declining since then to the last reported total of 369 in 2019, of which none were company-owned and all were located in the US.
Bonchon got its start in South Korea with its name that means “my hometown” with a core offering of made-to-order double-fried chicken, then brushed with its signature sauces. In addition to chicken, the chain offers other traditional Korean dishes such as Japchae, Tteokbokki, and Bibimbap.
Founded by Jinduk Seh in 2002 in South Korea, the first location in the US was opened in 2006. There are now more than 340 locations (up from the previously reported figure of more than 300), more than 100 of which are in the US, with the rest spread out across seven other countries.
13. Golden Chick
Golden Chick is a fast-casual fried chicken chain whose core offering has become the Original Golden Tender (marinated, battered, fried chicken tenderloin strips) since it was introduced in 1985. There are plenty of Southern-style items on the menu, which focuses on presenting lots of family meals, combination meals, and party packs.
Founded by Howard Walker in San Marcos, Texas in 1967 and franchising since 1972, the number of locations more than doubled from 90 in 2010 to the current total of 184, of which seven are company-owned and all are located in the US.
14. Chicken Salad Chick
Chicken Salad Chick is a departure from the other restaurant chains on this list because its menu doesn’t include either fried or grilled chicken. Instead, it presents a dozen different chicken salads made fresh daily to go with soups, sandwiches, and desserts in a Southern-style fast-casual concept as well as for catering. Without the complex kitchen requirements of most chicken franchises, the startup costs are substantially lower.
The company was recently purchased by consumer-focused private equity firm Brentwood Associates in Los Angeles. Founded by Stacy Brown in Auburn, Alabama in 2008 and franchising since 2012, the number of locations has climbed steadily since then to the current total of 161 (up from the previously reported total of 125), of which 44 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
15. Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken
Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken offers a variety of home-style quick-service food, including a number pressure-cooked fried chicken dishes (fresh-cooked, never-frozen), chicken pot pie, country fried steak, butterfly shrimp, and all kinds of sides. The chain also features fresh-brewed sweet tea, family meals, catering packs, kids meals, and gluten-free options.
Founded by Lee Cummings (nephew of KFC Founder Harlan “Colonel” Sanders) and Harold Omer in Lima, Ohio in 1966, there are currently 138 locations listed on the company website, up from the previous known total of 132.
16. Bush’s Chicken
Bush’s Chicken offers a Southern-style quick-service menu of fried chicken and fried chicken tenders in a family-friendly atmosphere. But fans can also opt to get their food from the drive-thru, which features multiple lanes with orders taken in-person by employees (not through an intercom system). There are lots of Southern sides and freshly-brewed iced tea. Some of its locations do offer baked chicken in addition to the usual fried chicken.
Founded by Keith and Charlene Bush in Waco, Texas in 1996 and franchising since 2005, the number of locations listed on the company website is 71, which is down from the previously listed number of around 90.
17. Wing Zone
Wing Zone is one of the half-dozen companies on this list that specialize in chicken wings. The chain offers a menu with traditional wings, boneless wings, chicken fingers, buffalo shrimp, a variety of sandwiches, potato wedges and other sides, salads, and desserts. Loyal fans (called flavorholics) love doing their own Flavor Fuze, choosing from among 14 rubs to create their own unique wing flavors.
Founded by Matt Friedman and Adam Scott in Gainesville, Florida in 1991 and franchising since 1999, the company website currently lists 31 locations (down from the previously listed total of 33) in the US and 27 international locations for a grand total of 58.
18. Wings Over
Wings Over has a menu specializing in wings (traditional and boneless) and sauces, but also includes ribs, sandwiches, wraps, salads, and sides. There are 25 different sauces for the wings, including six BBQ sauces, five savory sauces, three teriyaki sauces, six dry rubs, and five buffalo sauces that give a full range of heat options.
Founded in Amherst, Massachusetts in 2000 and franchising since 2002, the company website currently lists 36 locations, down from the previous listed total of 39.
19. Atomic Wings
Atomic Wings is the only buffalo wings chain on this list to specifically make a big deal of its chicken being all-natural, which for this company means the chickens are humanely raised in a cage-free environment without antibiotics or hormones. It also has 14 different sauces, most of which are gluten-free. The rest of the menu can vary by location, but usually includes a variety of sandwiches (burgers and chicken sandwiches) and sides (Mozzarella sticks, jalapeño poppers, onion rings, chicken quesadilla, tater tots, and waffle fries).
Founded by Adam Lippin in New York City in 1989 but only franchising since 2018, the number of locations currently stands at 24 (up one from the previously reported total), of which 20 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
20. Epic Wings
Epic Wings (formerly called Wings-n-Things) spent 30+ years perfecting its business model before it started franchising its concept. This is a buffalo wings chain that relies on 100% natural and fresh chicken (never frozen). It serves up three basic forms of chicken: tenderloin strips, boneless wings, and original buffalo wings. The buffalo sauce it serves comes in four levels of heat (mild, medium, hot, and extra hot) and also has five other sauce flavors. Rounding out the menu are buffalo chicken pizza sticks (bread), regular bread sticks, and a few sides.
Founded by the Sacco family in San Diego in 1982 but franchising only since 2018, there are now 19 locations (down one from the previously reported total of 20).
An Important Note About Our Methodology
The franchises on this list were ranked according to the number of units in the franchise system and growth momentum. 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.