Revised and updated January 21, 2021.
Asian restaurants have long been a familiar feature of western towns and cities, from fine dining experiences to cheerful fast-serving takeaways. It’s a part of the restaurant industry where independent restaurants have flourished, but now chains are starting to make their presence felt, among them some impressive franchises.
Asian cuisine is a very broad category, including Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Hawaiian, Mongolian, and others. It’s as if everything from Spanish paella to Hungarian goulash was being included under a single label of European cuisine, incorporating pizza, bratwurst, and fish and chips along the way. That means that there’s a wide variety to be experienced, and that appeals to a young, adventurous consumer base, while providing familiar dishes for customers who want to eat something spicy but like to know what they’re getting.
This is a substantial industry. Chinese restaurants alone have a market size of $15 billion in the US, employing 466,000 people in 25,500 businesses. Every city in America has a range of Asian restaurants catering to different tastes, and even small towns often have a Chinese eatery.
Franchised Asian restaurants have some significant advantages over independent businesses. Traditional ways of making these foods are often skill- and labor-intensive, with extensive menus. Big brands simplify the menu, then add machinery and automation, reducing overheads and speeding up the cooking process. The addition of their marketing power means that customers may quickly become as aware of a franchise entering the area as of the mom and pop operation that’s been on their street for decades.
Despite appearances, the competitors Asian franchises are most focused on often aren’t other Asian restaurants, but are instead other fast-casual eateries. There’s more ground to be gained in luring customers away from burgers and pizza into something more adventurous than there is in cannibalizing the existing Asian food market. This is what the growth of Asian franchises is founded on – not just taking over from other Asian restaurants but growing the whole sector by showing the tasty range of food on offer, appealing to customers’ sense of novelty. Sales of fast-casual Asian food grew nearly 6% in 2019, as more people saw the appeal of these foods.
Asian restaurants suffered from the impact of COVID-19 in a slightly different pattern from other restaurant sectors. Early in 2020, as news of a new disease coming out of China spread, interest in Chinese food declined in the US. This wasn’t just a reflection of xenophobic fears. Chinese-American communities, with their connections to Asia, were more aware of the virus and how it spread, and so were quicker to give up eating out than many other Americans. Year-on-year sales, which had been up 13% in January, then fell 1%.
Then came the regulations that affected all restaurants, as eat-in dining was banned in many areas under public health restrictions or was too risky an option for the restaurants’ owners and staff. Where it was possible, this often came with heavy adjustments, such as more dispersed seating, protective equipment for serving staff, temperature testing of customers on arrival, and more cashless payments.
Takeaway kept the restaurant industry afloat and brought the Asian restaurant sector back from the hit it had taken at the start of the year. Because it already had a strong emphasis on takeaway and fast-casual dining, the sector was well positioned to adapt to changed times, providing customers with variety and novelty during long months when they couldn’t eat out. It’s as a predominantly takeaway industry that Asian food is entering 2021, though the promise of stronger public health measures and widespread vaccination should soon allow more restaurants to re-open sit-in dining.
There are signs that traditional, independent Chinese restaurants are in decline. For some, this is a symptom of long-term trends, as the children of immigrants choose not to take over the family business. Old-fashioned business models, with their labor-intensive cooking, reliance on cash payments, and failure to adjust to modern marketing and delivery systems, have also played a part, and been exacerbated by the pandemic, during which those modern methods became more important. But the American taste for Asian food shows no sign of declining, and this creates an opportunity for more modern franchises to step in, either filling the gap for Chinese food or offering another Asian alternative.
For an entrepreneur looking to enter this sector, the variety of options can seem overwhelming. Chinese food is a reliable default option, though it has its own variations, such as regional cuisines or specialties like dim sum. Japanese cuisine has been growing in popularity for decades, with sushi now popular enough to have become mainstream. Other options provide novelty and the opportunity to attract customers with the lure of the new.
Whatever your preference in Asian food, our list of top franchises can help you to find an option that suits you.
Top Asian Restaurant Franchises of 2021
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 2,100 locations according to its website, mostly in the US but also in a variety of other countries (Canada, South Korea, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, Japan, El Salvador, Aruba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Guatemala, and the Philippines).
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, the number of locations has been on the rise in recent years from 678 in 2010 to the current total of 901 (up from the previously reported total of 777), of which 26 are company-owned and 749 are located outside the US (only 26 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 last known reported total of 302 in 2018, of which only one was company-owned and all but six were 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 205 (up from the previously reported total of 195), of which none are company-owned and two are located outside the US.
5. Ginger Sushi Boutique
Ginger Sushi Boutique 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 jumped from 140 in 2017 to the last known reported total of 157 in 2018, of which none were company-owned and all but one were located outside the US (in Canada).
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 has since declined to the last known reported total of 105 in 2018, of which only one was company-owned and 76 were located outside the US.
7. 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 has risen rapidly in recent years from seven in 2012 to the current total of 78 (up from the previously reported total of 62), of which one is company-owned and three are located outside the US.
8. 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 67 (up from the previously reported total of 63), of which one is company-owned and 38 are located outside 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 56 (up from the previously reported total of 46), of which nine 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 20 locations (up from the previously reported total of 18), 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 57 in 2010 to the last known reported total of 19 in 2018, of which one was company-owned and all were 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.