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Fast-food restaurants or booming real estate businesses?

Key takeaways

  • In-N-Out Burger is family-owned, and its test kitchen is in Baldwin Park, CA. It has the fewest properties per million people, while McDonald's has the densest presence.

  • Texas is the only state in the top five for all mentioned restaurants.

  • McDonald's owns 15% of its properties directly, with the rest being franchises. Despite McDonald's having a larger net worth than Chick-fil-A, the average Chick-fil-A makes twice as much, operating fewer days per week.

  • Wendy's company-owned locations have decreased by almost 75% in the last 7 years.

  • Sonic is the largest drive-in fast-food chain.

  • Burger King is the second-largest fast-food burger chain, with about half the number of locations as McDonald's.

Drive around any metropolitan area and you would be hard-pressed to not find a lot of real estate being occupied by several fast-food restaurants within a mere mile radius. In today’s busy world, fast-food establishments are a way of life, providing a quick and convenient way to eat on the run.

These businesses have also become multi-billion dollar companies that serve a lot more than burgers and fries; they are a major force in the food-service industry, owning numerous properties throughout the world and employing millions of people. They’re also real estate giants.

We’ve focused on some of the top fast-food chains in the US (and some of our personal favorites) to see how many locations are owned by each corporation, and which five states have the most of each. We also looked at the ratio of restaurants per millions of people. Here’s what we learned!


When you think of McDonald’s, the first thing that comes to mind is probably not their successful real estate empire. However, this multi-billion dollar corporation is one of the few fast-food chains that also serves as landlord to a substantial 15% of their over 36,000 worldwide stores. This brilliant move means that on top of the money McDonald’s receives from franchises, it also gets a significant portion of its $163 billion net worth from lease payments of the corporate-owned properties, making it one of the most successful real estate companies in the world. In fact, McDonald’s former CFO, Harry J. Sonneborn, stated “We are not technically in the food business. We are in the real estate business.”

A real-estate powerhouse dressed as a fast-food chain, McDonald’s has approximately 13,826 locations across the US, with the highest number being found in Texas. California, Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina are the next four states to have the most McDonald’s locations, respectively. Although North Carolina has the least number of McDonald’s properties in the top five list, it also has the highest concentration per million people.

Burger King

This Miami-based chain is the second-largest fast-food burger establishment in the US, with approximately 7,300 locations. The number of locations has gone down in the past few years, but Burger King’s plan is to add more properties to close the gap between its main rival, McDonald’s. Operated by Restaurant Brands International, Inc. (RBI), which has a net worth of about $18.61 billion, the majority of Burger King locations are operated by private franchise owners, with the largest number of establishments found in California. Florida comes in a close second, and Texas, Michigan, and Ohio finish off the top five list, with Michigan featuring the highest concentration of properties per million people.


The Wendy’s Company is the holding company for Wendy’s and has approximately 6,000 locations in the US. However, today the company itself owns only about 350 of these locations, a significant decrease from just about 7 years ago when it owned closer to 1,300 of its properties. Now, most of the locations are franchised, not company-owned, and altogether the company has an approximate net worth of $5 billion. Florida takes the lead when it comes to the highest number of Wendy’s locations in the US. Texas comes in second and Ohio comes in third for the number of locations, but it is first when it comes to the number of restaurants per million people. California and Illinois come in at fourth and fifth, respectively.

Taco Bell

With over 5,600 locations across the country, Taco Bell is no doubt a favorite place to grab a quick bite for many people, especially in California, which boasts the most locations. Texas comes in second, but at a fraction of the total storefronts in the Golden State. Florida, Ohio, and Michigan are neck-and-neck to finish off the list, and Ohio and Michigan tie for the densest showing of Taco Bells per million people.

Taco Bell is actually operated by a larger corporation, Yum! Brands which also operate other fast-food favorites KFC, Pizza Hut, and WingStreet, and has a net worth of roughly $34.4 billion. The company operates these restaurants in partnership with franchise owners across the US and worldwide, except for China which has its own company, Yum! China.

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Yum! Brands is also the operator of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is based out of Louisville, Kentucky, and yet its home state doesn’t make our top five list. California comes in first for both the number of properties as well as the number of establishments per million people when it comes to this fried chicken empire. Texas comes in second with almost 50% the number of locations, and Florida, Georgia, and Ohio follow; a close third, fourth, and fifth.

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A classic drive-in favorite, Sonic, known for its fun menu which includes a large variety of shakes and endless combinations of flavored slushes and limeades, is operated by the company, Inspire Brands. This ready-to-grow restaurant conglomerate is the fourth largest in the United States and in addition to Sonic, also operates Arby’s, Rusty Taco, and Buffalo Wild Wings, and most recently the speedy sandwich shop, Jimmy John’s.

The combined system sales of Inspire Brands are estimated to exceed $14 billion annually, and Sonic makes up roughly 3,580 of the over 11,000 locations that the company operates. Although it has fewer locations than some of its larger counterparts, like McDonald’s and Burger King, it is the largest drive-in fast-food chain. The majority of Sonic locations can be found in Texas, which has roughly 4 times the amount of locations as its home base of Oklahoma. Oklahoma comes in second in terms of the number of locations, but it is first in how many restaurants there are per million people. Tennessee, California, and Arkansas finish off the list of the top five states.



This family-owned company has made its way into almost every state in the US and does an impressive business, outpacing McDonald’s when it comes to individual store performance, and taking its place as the third-largest fast-food chain in America. In 2018, it generated about $10 billion and showed a growth of 16.7%. This is especially impressive considering it has just about 2,400 locations, which is on the smaller end of the list of eateries. Plus, it’s only open six days a week since the company closes all of its locations on Sundays so that employees are guaranteed a day to spend with their families.

The largest amount of Chick-fil-A properties can be found in Texas, while Georgia comes in second and has the most locations per million people, not surprising for this Atlanta-based chain. Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio complete the top five list.

In-N-Out Burger

This regional chain, owned by businesswoman Lynsi Lavelle Snyder-Ellingson, is based out of California and is the only other family-owned chain to make our list. It has a net worth of about $3 billion and has been serving up food pretty much the same since it was founded in 1948 by Snyder’s grandparents.

The business has about 350 locations in the US, and most of these can be found in its home base of California. California also has the highest number of locations per million people. Texas comes in second in terms of the number of properties, but still has just a third of the amount found in California. Florida, Michigan, and Arizona come in at third, fourth and fifth, with less than 50 properties between them.

These fast-food icons are strong forces in the real estate industry, with locations spread across the country (and in many cases globally), and yet they exhibit many differences. They vary in the number of locations, ownership, how they operate, what they serve, and several other factors. 

The next time you get a craving for a McFlurry, or you can’t wait to make a late-night stop for that bean burrito, maybe you’ll think about how you’re adding profit to a major real estate empire. Or maybe you’ll just think about how you want some extra fries with that.

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