Revised and updated November 21, 2019.
People were surprised to find out that chicken has been gaining ground on hamburgers as a fast-food choice since 2016. This is why many non-chicken chains have been scrambling to add more chicken to their menus, such as Taco Bell with its Naked Chicken Chalupa, seven different chicken sandwiches at Arby’s, and so on. But entrepreneurs who want to really home in on the chicken craze have an extensive list of proven concepts worth a closer look with this list of the top 20 chicken restaurant franchises of 2020.
Part of what drove the rush to chicken from a business perspective is the fact that chicken was cheaper than beef, although the pricing has since equalized. But consumers have reacted very favorably to chicken in recent years, in spite of the fact that fried chicken has typically been seen as not very healthy.
Then came the great chicken sandwich wars of 2019 – a real “clustercluck” as it’s been called. Popeye’s launched a new chicken sandwich with lots of boasting on Twitter. Chick-fil-A tweeted back, then Wendy’s jumped into the fray and the great chicken sandwich wars were on, with each chain claiming their version is clearly the best. Bojangles tried to jump in but was lost in the shuffle. Perhaps it was just a passing Twitter wave, but a lot of people went out to try different chicken sandwiches to see for themselves. Well played to all of them!
Here are the 20 best chicken restaurant franchises of 2020:
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 23,103 (an increase of 1,660 from the previous year’s total of 21,443).
All this recent growth for the chain has come from international expansion, which has exploded in the last three years to 18,794 locations outside the US. Meanwhile, the number of domestic locations has declined recently from 4,387 in 2008 to the current total of 3,980.
Also, the number of company-owned units has been drastically reduced from its recent high of 5,321 in 2016 to only 329. 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 grown only slightly in recent years to the current total of more than 2,700 in the US and around the world, according to the company website.
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!
There are now more than 2,360 locations, but the franchise arrangement is different than most. The company retains ultimate ownership of all locations, and solely determines where they are built. Franchisees are handpicked and pay a $10,000 fee to become the operator of a location.
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 in recent years from 1,693 in 2010 to the current total of 1,550 (a loss of six from the previous year’s total of 1,556), of which 165 are company-owned and 475 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 recent years from 359 in 2008 to the current total of 1,303 (an increase of 247 units from the previous year’s total of 1,056), of which 29 are company-owned and 135 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 grown rapidly in recent years from 82 in 2008 to the current total of 1,286 (an increase of 94 units from the previous year’s total of 1,192), 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 560 in 2008 to 1,276 in 2018, but just ticked down for the first time to 1,274 (a loss of two units), of which 635 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 558 in 2012 to the current total of “more than 900” as described on the company website.
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 just dropped slightly to the current total of 764, of which 322 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 485 locations 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 current total of 369, none of which are company-owned and all of which are 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 300 locations, 105 of which are in the US (up from the previous year’s count of 88), 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 79 in 2008 to 186 in 2018, but just dropped slightly to the current total of 181, of which 12 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
14. 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 132 locations listed on the company website, which represents a decline from the last known total of 142.
15. 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 125 (an increase of 35 from the previous year’s total of 90), of which 40 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
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 is hard to pin down because there’s no good source of consistent information. Looking at the company’s location map on their website, there appears to be around 90 locations, all of which are in Texas, except for one in Arizona.
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 33 (a loss of 6 from the previous year) locations in the US and 27 international locations for a grand total of 60.
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 39 locations, a loss of two units from the previous year’s total.
19. 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 23 locations, of which 20 are company-owned and all are located in the US.
20. 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, the company website lists 20 locations, which is the same as last year. All are located in New York except for two in Connecticut and one in Maryland.
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.