Revised and updated November 21, 2019.
Everyone’s familiar with their community’s independent Chinese and/or Japanese restaurants, but recent years have seen a rapidly rising wave of all kinds of Asian quick-serve and fast-casual chain concepts. Entrepreneurs who want to surf this wave all the way to the bank have a great set of options to examine with this list of the 11 best Asian restaurant franchises of 2020.
Asian fast-food chains are the fastest-growing restaurant category around the world, and sales have been going up dramatically since the turn of the Millennium. In the United States, 50% of Asian fast-food sales are now generated by chains. Younger consumers, who are more adventurous than previous generations, are loving having so many new options available, including Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Hawaiian, Mongolian, and others.
Several of the chains on this list feature poke bowls, which are still a relatively new concept to many people. Poke is a raw fish salad typically served as an appetizer or sometimes an entrée in Hawaiian cuisine. The word poke in Hawaiian is a verb meaning “to section” or “to slice or cut.”
While restaurants of all types have been adding Asian dishes to their menus to take advantage of this cuisine’s rising popularity, the companies on this list are all-in with their chosen Asian menus. Here are the top 11 Asian restaurant franchises of 2020:
1. Panda Express
Panda Express is far and away the largest Asian restaurant chain in the US, with a fast-casual menu featuring 13 different entrées, four appetizers, five sides, and two desserts (fortune cookies and chocolate chunk cookies). Among its main dishes are Kung Pao Chicken – one of the few Chinese dishes that’s arguably even more popular than General Tso’s Chicken (which is not on the Panda Express menu) – and its signature dish, Orange Chicken.
Founded by Andrew and Peggy Cherng in Glendale, California in 1983, the chain now has more than 2,200 locations, mostly in the US but also in a variety of other countries, including Canada, South Korea, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, Japan, El Salvador, Aruba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Guatemala.
Most Panda Express locations are company-owned. Limited opportunities available to franchisees are in non-traditional locations such as airports, universities, military bases, hospitals, casinos, amusement parks, and stadiums.
2. Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ
Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ has a personal smokeless grill installed at every table where customers can grill up their choice of a dozen different meats, mushrooms, and veggies. There are also a variety of starters and desserts on the menu. Gyu-Kaku (“Horn of the Bull” in Japanese) aims for an authentic Japanese yakiniku (grilled barbecue) dining experience where customers cook over a flaming charcoal grill while sipping Japanese sake, shochu, beer, and other beverages.
Founded in 1996 and franchising since 1997, there are currently 777 locations, of which 26 are company-owned and 728 are located outside the US (only 23 US locations have been established since the first one in Los Angeles in 2001).
3. Thai Express
Thai Express is a quick-service chain specializing in traditional fresh Thai cuisine with a menu that includes three appetizers, two soups, three curry dishes, six stir-fry dishes, two noodle dishes (Pad Thai and Pad See Ew), fried rice, General Thai, and Orange Chicken.
The company was founded in Saint-Laurent, Quebec, Canada and is owned by Canadian food giant MTY Group and operated in the US by Kahala Brands (also owned by MTY). Founded and franchising since 2004, the number of locations has grown in recent years from 171 in 2011 to the current total of 302 locations, of which only one is company-owned and all but six are located outside the US.
4. L&L Hawaiian Barbecue
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue is a mash-up of influences, including Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, American, and Korean elements, served in the form of a traditional Hawaiian barbecue plate lunch with two scoops of rice, a creamy macaroni salad, and a hot entrée. And there’s even Spam in the menu with Spam Musubi (a slice of grilled spam on rice, wrapped in dry seaweed) and Spam Saimin (a noodle soup with Spam and fresh green onions).
Founded by Johnson Kam and Eddie Flores Jr. in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1976 and franchising since 1991, the number of locations currently stands at 195 (10 more than last year), none of which are company-owned and two of which are located outside the US.
5. Ginger Sushi + Poke Shop
Ginger Sushi + Poke Shop is a chain from Canada where it is known as Sushi Shop. The menu features seven appetizers and salads, 13 poké bowls, five blossom rolls, two crispy rolls, four hosomaki rolls, seven maki rolls, six nigiri sashimi options, 10 sumomaki rolls, three temari sushi balls, sushi burritos, sushi tacos, sushi pizza, and desserts.
The company is owned by Canadian food giant MTY Group and franchised in the US by Kahala Brands (also owned by MTY). Founded in Montreal in 2000 and franchising since 2001, after slow growth from 2011 to 2017, the number of locations has jumped from 140 in 2017 to the current total of 158, none of which are company-owned and all but two of which are located outside the US (in Canada). The two locations in the US are both in Texas, with one in Austin and the other in San Marcos.
6. Manchu Wok
Manchu Wok is another Canadian chain owned by Canadian food giant MTY Group and franchised in the US by Kahala Brands (also owned by MTY). The menu is American and Canadian Chinese fast food with 20 different chicken dishes, eight beef dishes, five pork dishes, four noodle side dishes, fried rice, egg rolls, spring rolls, and three soups. Many locations are in shopping malls, and the chain also has a presence on a half-dozen US military bases around the world.
Founded by Dr. Jack Lew in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada in 1980 and franchising since 1989, the chain reached a high of 245 locations back in the mid-1990s, but now that number currently stands at 105, only one of which is company-owned and 76 of which are located outside the US.
7. Phở Hòa
Phở Hòa claims to be the first Vietnamese restaurant chain to adopt the franchising model. It positions itself as a healthier version of the noodle soup that doesn’t rely on cholesterol-and-calorie-laden bone marrow broth, opting instead for premium meats. Customers choose what goes into their pho besides the broth and rice noodles, choosing from among 12 different meats, six veggies, and six add-ons. Also on the menu are customizable vermicelli bowls and rice plates.
Founded by Binh Nguyen and Phan Jiang in San Jose, California in 1983 and franchising since 1992, the number of locations currently stands at 63 (same as last year), of which 10 are company-owned and 38 are located outside the US.
8. Teriyaki Madness
Teriyaki Madness features a menu with eight signature bowls (various chicken, beef, tofu combinations), five appetizers, seven side dishes, and eight different house-made sauces. Plagued by rising labor costs in a historically tight labor market, the chain has been talking about its quest to find other ways to control costs through greater efficiencies to keep its franchisees profitable.
Founded in 2003 and franchising since 2005, the number of locations stands at 58 (a gain of 13 from the previous year’s total of 45), of which three are company-owned and all are located in the US.
Pokéworks relies on sustainable, seasonal, and natural ingredients, including responsibly-sourced seafood for its chef-driven signature poké bowls. Customers can also opt to build their bowl by choosing a base (bowl, burrito, or salad), one of seven proteins, 11 different mix-ins, eight different flavoring sauces, nine different toppings, and seven different crunchy additions. The chain has gotten some really great press and viral social media attention that has it growing rapidly.
Founded by Peter Yang, Michael Wu, Kevin Hsu, and Kasper Hsu in New York City in 2015 and franchising since 2016, the number of locations has risen quickly to 46, of which 11 are company-owned and one is located outside the US.
10. LemonShark Poké
LemonShark Poké has an interesting name. “LemonShark” is a particular species of shark, Negaprion Brevirostris, that only feeds on the very best fish, which is this chain’s way of saying it serves only premium fish. It is a “sit and enjoy” experience as opposed to many poké concepts that are more “grab and go.” The menu consists of six signature bowls, including Aloha Tuna, LemonShark Salmon, Albacore Islander, Maui Heat Wave, California Roll, and Chili Garlic Tofu. The bowls can also be customized by choosing from among six bases, 13 poké protein options, 18 toppings, and 11 different sauces.
Founded in 2016 and franchising since 2017, this newcomer to the market already has 18 locations (up from eight last year), of which two are company-owned and all are located in the US.
11. Samurai Sam’s Teriyaki Grill
Samurai Sam’s Teriyaki Grill is a chain of Japanese fast-food restaurants mostly in western states with a menu featuring seven different rice bowls (any of which can also be turned into a wrap with a wheat tortilla), four signature bowls, seven different yakisoba bowls, salads, and sides. Customers are also free to top any dish with Samurai Sam’s Teriyaki Sauce.
Founded by John Young, David Young, Kerry Phelps, and Russ Schoene in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1994 and franchising since 1995, the number of locations has been steadily declining in recent years from 74 in 2008 to the current total of 16 (two less than the previous year’s total), of which one is company-owned and all are located in the US.
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.