The American fast-food industry may seem vulnerable to healthier eating habits and lower grocery prices, but it's still growing at a steady pace. However, consumer tastes are changing, and fast-food leaders like McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) and Subway -- which still generate the highest systemwide sales in the U.S. -- aren't the most successful chains in the country.
The success of a fast-food chain is usually measured by its average sales per unit. By that measure, several smaller chains are crushing the bigger players, according to QSR's report on 2016 restaurant sales.
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Chick-fil-A, which closes on Sundays, represents a growing threat to traditional fried chicken chains like KFC, boasting over 2,100 locations. Panera, with more than 2,000 stores, caters to more health-conscious consumers.
Whataburger has just over 800 stores in the South and the Plains, but it's a regional favorite like In-N-Out in the West and Shake Shack in the North. Jason's Deli has fewer than 300 locations, making it the smallest chain in the top five by a large margin. Looking ahead, bigger chains could struggle to match these smaller chains' productivity.
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