Everyone knows that the hamburger is the king of fast food, right? Wrong! A lot of people don’t realize that as of 2016, chicken restaurants have overtaken burger joints as the category consumers think of first when considering what fast food they want to eat. And three of the five fastest-growing large restaurant chains are chicken concepts. This explains why a lot of non-chicken chains are quickly adding chicken options to their menus.
Fried chicken has traditionally been thought of as a Southern dish, and most of the chains on this list do have their origins in the Southern United States. One niche within this overall Southern segment emphasizes Cajun flavors. The newest niche concept is building on the South Korean take on fried chicken sweeping the nation and the world. Other unique niche concepts include chicken salad and Mexican-style fire-grilled chicken. Meanwhile, the wings craze that started in the 1980s continues to build momentum, with no fewer than five chains on this list whose primary focus is chicken wings, typically buffalo-style, all showing strong growth.
Entrepreneurs who want to buy into a proven concept have a robust list of chicken franchises to choose from. Here are our picks for the top 20 chicken franchises of 2017/2018.
Chick-fil-A has made a name for itself in recent years by achieving average annual sales that is four times that of KFC, even though it is only open six days a week. It serves a breakfast menu in the morning and then a lunch/dinner menu featuring its signature chicken sandwich. The chain is also known for having all locations close on Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas – a nod to the Southern Baptist values of its founder, Truett Cathy. Its tongue-in-cheek “Eat mor chikin” campaign – a slogan painted on signs and billboards by cows – has been very popular. There are now more than 2,200 locations, but the franchise arrangement is different than most. The company retains ownership of each location, and solely determines where they are built. Franchisees are handpicked and pay a $10,000 fee to become the operator of a site.
KFC was in on the early days of chicken franchises after founder Colonel Harland Sanders found a way to modify pressure cookers into pressure fryers (he didn’t want to go with deep-frying because he thought it lowered the quality of the chicken) and also settled on his final “11 herbs and spices” recipe. Menu innovations in recent years include the infamous “Double Down” (a sandwich where the “bun” is two pieces of chicken with bacon and cheese inside) and its more recent line of Nashville Hot trio of offerings. Founded in 1930 and franchising since 1952, the number of locations has continued to climb over the years and now stands at 20,826. Recent growth for the chain has come from establishing locations outside the U.S., which now total 15,537 while the number of U.S. franchises has declined slightly to 3,926 and company-owned units total 1,363.
3. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen celebrates its Louisiana roots with a menu featuring chicken dishes that can be ordered mild or spicy, along with such offerings as red beans and rice, Cajun fries, mashed potatoes with Cajun-style gravy, Cajun rice, chicken-and-sausage jambalaya, and po’ boy sandwiches. The chain was recently purchased by Restaurant Brands International (the same company that holds Burger King and Tim Hortons), which in turn is majority-owned by Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital. Founded in 1972 and franchising since 1976, the number of locations has edged up only slightly in recent years to the current grand total of more than 2,700 in the U.S. and around the world.
4. Church’s Chicken
Church’s Chicken is a fast-food chain serving up its signature Original and Spicy chicken, Tender Strips, and chicken sandwiches, along with chicken fried steak and a selection of seafood dishes, classic sides, and handmade from scratch honey-butter biscuits in an atmosphere of Southern hospitality. The privately-held company was purchased by San Francisco private equity firm Friedman Fleischer & Lowe in 2009. Founded in 1952 and franchising since 1969, the number of locations totals more than 1,700 in the U.S. and 25 other countries (where it is sometimes presented as Texas Chicken).
5. Buffalo Wild Wings
Buffalo Wild Wings is best known for its wings and 12 signature sauces, although the menu features a wide array of other items including appetizers, burgers, tacos, salads, and desserts, along with beer and wine. The heat index includes mild, medium, hot, wild, and blazin’. Each location also features at least 50 screens for watching sports and other televised content. Customers who take on the “Blazin’ Wing Challenge” and eat a dozen of the hottest wings get a free t-shirt and their photo on the wall of fame. Founded in 1982 and franchising since 1991, the number of locations has expanded during the past 10 years from 448 in 2007 to the current total of 1,170, of which 594 are company-owned and 14 are located outside the U.S.
Chester’s is a quick-serve concept that uses a secret family recipe and process developed back in the 1950s to prepare an array of fried chicken dishes along with breakfast items, wraps, salads, sides, and desserts. In addition to its regular franchise operation, Chester’s also has an option for supermarkets to offer Chester’s food products as a home meal replacement option by modifying its deli. Founded in 1952 and franchising since 2004, the number of locations has grown rapidly during the past 10 years from 47 in 2007 to the current total of 1,156, of which 39 are located outside the U.S.
Wingstop takes a simple approach to its menu, offering just three types of wings: classic, boneless, and tenders, which are breaded strips. Also on the menu are several sides such as hand-cut fries, beans, and coleslaw made fresh daily. Its 11 wing sauces, listed by order of hottest to mildest, include Atomic (the hottest), Mango Habanero, Cajun, Original Hot, Louisiana Rub, Mild, Hickory Smoked BBQ, Lemon Pepper, Garlic Parmesan, Hawaiian, and Teriyaki. Founded in 1994 and franchising since 1998, the number of locations has more than tripled during the past 10 years from 308 in 2007 to the current total of 1,056, of which 21 are company-owned and 89 are located outside the U.S.
Zaxby’s is a fast-food chain offering chicken wings, chicken fingers, sandwiches, and salads, but its menu is relatively simple. The chain has greatly benefited from exclusive contracts with as many as 30 Division I colleges to sell its food at football and basketball games, and that college connection has been a growth driver. Zaxby’s is an enthusiastic supporter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Founded in 1990 and franchising since 1994, the number of locations has more than doubled over the past 10 years from 388 in 2007 to the current total of 800+, 122 of which are company-owned.
9. Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits
Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits is a Southeastern U.S. fast-food chain that is focused on Cajun-style seasoned fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits. The menu also includes a variety of sides, some of which are Cajun-style such as jambalaya, Cajun rice, red beans and rice, mashed potatoes with Cajun gravy, and Cajun fries. It also offers a few sandwiches and seafood dishes along with desserts. Founded in 1977 and franchising since 1978, the company went public in 2015 with its shares listed on NASDAQ with the symbol BOJA. The number of locations has nearly doubled during the past 10 years from 396 in 2007 to the current total of 740, of which 314 are company-owned and three are located outside the U.S.
10. El Pollo Loco
El Pollo Loco (The Crazy Chicken) presents a signature citrus-marinated, fire-grilled chicken concept. Whole chickens are marinated in a special recipe of herbs, spices, fruit juices, and garlic and then fire-grilled, hand-cut, and served as chicken meals along with burritos, salads, soups, tacos, and quesadillas. It also features handmade guacamole, salsas, and dressings. It positions itself as a healthier alternative to traditional fast food. Founded in 1975 in Mexico and then moved to the U.S. in 1980, there are now 403 locations, of which 168 are company-owned.
Bonchon is a Korean word that translates to “my hometown,” and just about every corner in South Korea has a mom-and-pop fried chicken joint. Bonchon’s core menu offering is its signature made-to-order fried chicken, which is double-fried with one of two secret sauces. In addition to chicken, the chain offers other traditional Korean dishes such as Japchae, Tteokbokki, and Bibimbap. Founded in 2002 in South Korea, the first location in the U.S. was opened in 2006. There are now more than 210 locations, of which at least 162 are located outside the U.S.
12. Golden Chick
Golden Chick is a quick-serve fried chicken chain that made a name for itself with the introduction in 1985 of its Original Golden Tender – a fried chicken strip made from whole chicken tenderloin that is marinated, battered, and fried. Its menu offerings are focused on various combination meals, family meals, and party paks featuring its Golden Tenders along with regular fried chicken, roasted chicken, chicken sandwiches, salads, sides, and desserts. Founded in 1967 and franchising since 1972, the number of locations has more than doubled over the past 10 years from 79 in 2007 to the current total of 170, of which 14 are company-owned and two are located outside the U.S.
13. Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken
Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken is a quick-service restaurant chain that offers up fresh-cooked, never-frozen chicken that is honey-dipped, hand-breaded with a special blend of herbs and spices, and then pressure-cooked to seal in the flavor. It also offers oven-roasted gluten-free options, breast strips, and boneless Spicy Jumbo Dippers. Also on the menu are a range of other items such as chicken pot pie, country fried steak, livers and gizzards, a BBQ chicken sandwich, butterfly shrimp, sides, and desserts. Founded in 1966, there are currently 142 locations.
14. Wing Zone
Wing Zone offers traditional and boneless wings, chicken fingers, buffalo shrimp, sandwiches (1/2-pound burgers, grilled chicken, chicken fingers), potato wedges, beer battered onion rings, fried mushrooms, salads, mozzarella sticks, beer battered fried pickles, and a couple dessert options. Calling its loyal fans Flavorholics, customers engage in Flavor Fuze, which means choosing from among the chain’s creative 14 flavor offerings, often called rubs, applied to its wings and other menu items. Its heat index has four levels starting with Tame, then moving up to Buffalo Bliss, HotShot, and the hottest, which is Nuclear Habanero. Founded in 1991 and franchising since 1999, the number of locations currently stands at around 100, eleven of which are located outside the U.S. in Guatemala, Panama, Singapore, and Malaysia.
15. Chicken Salad Chick
Chicken Salad Chick is a unique Southern-inspired, fast-casual concept serving up a variety of fresh, house-made chicken salads along with soups, sandwiches, and desserts. By focusing on chicken salad, franchisees don’t have to deal with the fryers and ventilation systems most chicken chains have to deal with. The company’s Chicken Salad Chick Foundation funds two primary efforts: fighting cancer as a partner of the American Cancer Society and feeding the hungry through food banks and kitchens in the communities where the chain has stores. Founded in 2008 and franchising since 2012, the number of locations has climbed steadily since then to the current total of 77, of which 13 are company-owned.
16. Bush’s Chicken
Bush’s Chicken serves up uniquely marinated chicken dishes (based on a family recipe) in a family-friendly environment. Its drive-thru service features multiple lanes where employees come out to take orders, rather than using a speaker system. The company is looking to expand into new markets, including Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, and Louisiana. Founded in 1996 and franchising since 2005, there are currently more than 64 locations, all of which are located in Texas and several of which are company-owned.
17. Wings Over
Wings Over is a wings chain focused on fresh-made food geared toward serving a “younger male” target market with a machismo approach that encourages guys to “let their inner caveman out” while poking fun at “the appletini and lettuce wrap” culture. The concept includes chicken wings, boneless chicken wings, ribs, sandwiches (fried chicken, broiled chicken, buffalo chicken, hamburgers), and fries for delivery or takeout orders. The brand is presented with an air-travel theme. For those who want spicy wings, its buffalo sauces start with Wimpy (which is still described as “very hot”) and move up to Cruisin’ Altitude, Red Alert, Jet Fuel, and After Burn (the hottest). It also has nearly 20 other sauces and rubs that aren’t about being hot. Founded in 2000 and franchising since 2002, the company website currently lists 41 locations.
18. Atomic Wings
Atomic Wings serves up buffalo-style chicken wings with a dozen different sauces, and many of its locations serve USDA-certified Organic Wings. The wings are crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Its spicy range includes mild, medium, hot, abusive, nuclear, and suicidal along with five other flavored sauces. Founded in 1989 in New York City, the company website lists 25 locations, mostly in the Northeast, one of which is in Mexico.
19. Mrs. Winner’s Chicken and Biscuits
Mrs. Winner’s Chicken and Biscuits is a quick-service restaurant chain serving up traditional Southern fried chicken and home-style menu items in a friendly atmosphere. It features a surprisingly large breakfast menu relative to its lunch and dinner offerings, but the focus throughout is on its chicken and biscuits. Founded in 1979, the chain has had its ups and downs as it changed ownership several times, but is now in the midst of a major brand revival after the company’s former attorney, John Buttolph, took it over in 2016. Its locations in the Southeastern U.S. now number 14, although there was a time when there were more than 100.
20. Brewster’s Chicken
Brewster’s Chicken serves a half-dozen signature chicken sandwiches, chicken tenders, chicken nuggets, wraps, salads, sides (fries and onion rings), 15 flavors of wings, kids meals, breakfast, and dessert (Hershey’s ice cream). As a chain just getting underway, this relatively new company offers prospective franchisees the opportunity to grow with a company in its early stages of expansion. Founded in 2008 and franchising since 2009, there is currently just one franchised location in Norfolk, Virginia.