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Which Fast-Food Chain Did Best During the Pandemic?

There's little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic changed the restaurant industry forever. From innovative ways restaurants managed to stay relevant and bring in customers to chains that closed locations across the country, the dining-out landscape is being remade, and this is true whether we're talking about Michelin-star restaurants or fast-food chains.

The data visualization company HiGeorge has been watching restaurant chains to track their pandemic performance and recovery. Starting from a January 2020 baseline of foot traffic data from SafeGraph, Cheapism analyzed what's happened at 10 of America's favorites, ranked below from hardest hit to most successful. 


Related: This Burger Chain Saw the Biggest Pandemic Sales Boost


Starbucks

Starbucks During PandemicPhoto credit: SafeGraph • Powered by HiGeorge

The coffee giant, which started near the middle of the pack in February 2020, slumped quickly in the early days of the pandemic, losing nearly half of its foot traffic by April 2020. Inc.com noted late last year that the company had managed to weather the pandemic largely due to a decision it made five years ago to roll out a mobile app that made online ordering and takeout and drive-thru service easier. And, indeed, business has rebounded, though it continues to ebb and flow. Between March and May, for example, its foot traffic decreased nearly 60% but was still at 99% of its January 2020 level. The company reported in late June that in areas where vaccination rates were higher, Starbucks' foot traffic "shot through the roof."


Related: 17 Things You Didn't Know About Starbucks


Subway

Subway During PandemicPhoto credit: SafeGraph • Powered by HiGeorge

Subway's pandemic foot traffic performance closely resembled Starbucks', with the sub sandwich enterprise doing only a few percentage points better than the coffee chain during most months throughout the pandemic. The fast food chain's lower traffic can likely be attributed to at least a couple of key factors: a low drive-in presence at many of its restaurants; and the fact that it didn't roll out pickup shelves until September or curbside service until November. After a dip in the waning months of last year and early 2021, Subway has begun to recover. It's now matching almost exactly its January 2020 foot traffic, and the sandwich chain is likely hoping that its biggest menu update in brand history will help those numbers even more.


Related: What's the Most Popular Fast Food in Your State?


KFC

KFC During PandemicPhoto credit: SafeGraph • Powered by HiGeorge

Although KFC didn't lose much foot traffic as the pandemic took hold, it was one of the few fast-food chains to dip below those early losses in the ensuing months: In December 2020, its foot traffic was 91% of what it had been, lower than its April 2020 total of 93%. Also, like other chains, which have all fairly consistently lost foot traffic since the spring, KFC saw a 70% drop in foot traffic between March 2021 and May 2021.


Related: 19 Spectacular Fast-Food Restaurant Designs Around the World


Burger King

Burger King During PandemicPhoto credit: SafeGraph • Powered by HiGeorge

Throughout most of the pandemic, Burger King's foot traffic gains and losses closely tracked those of its biggest competitor, McDonald's. But by May the gap between the two had widened. BK had 113% of its original January 2020 traffic. That's a full 16% less than McDonald's, however, and the fast-food chain's image continues to suffer blows this year in the form of PR nightmares that include tone-deaf tweets and worsening employee morale.


Related: 20 Fast-Food Restaurants Then and Now


Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A During PandemicPhoto credit: SafeGraph • Powered by HiGeorge

The popular chicken sandwich vendor stayed pretty much in line with most others throughout the pandemic. The brand's success was likely due to a few factors. Among them: its efficient drive-thru lanes, online and mobile ordering, innovations such as Family Meal Bundles, and customer loyalty — it recently was named America's favorite fast-food chain for the seventh consecutive year.


Related: Best Fried Chicken Sandwiches in America


Dunkin'

Dunkin' During PandemicPhoto credit: SafeGraph • Powered by HiGeorge

The coffee and doughnut company's foot traffic was, like others on this list, on the rise in February 2020. Then the pandemic hit, precipitating a drastic fall in foot traffic. By April 2020 it was down to 68% of what it had been. Since then, there've been ebbs and flows. By May 2021 it was back up to 116% of its January 2020 foot traffic — not a bad amount of traffic, but also 67% less than in March 2021.


Related: Who Has the Better Tasting Doughnuts — Dunkin' or Krispy Kreme?


Taco Bell

Taco Bell During PandemicPhoto credit: SafeGraph • Powered by HiGeorge

In the early months of the pandemic, Taco Bell was actually doing better than some of its burger-happy competitors, outperforming names such as McDonald's and Wendy's by just a few percentage points. Between August 2020 and September 2020, those numbers started to look like trouble — but by May the peddler of tacos, burritos, and other south-of-the-border fast-food favorites had climbed back up to 117% of its original foot traffic.


Related: 20 Spicy Secrets Behind Taco Bell's Success


Wendy's

Wendy's During PandemicPhoto credit: SafeGraph • Powered by HiGeorge

After a drop to just 86% of its early 2020 foot traffic in April of that year, Wendy's rebounded nicely, to an average of 132% of that same traffic over the summer of 2020. Like other chains in the list, it took a turn for the worse in the winter, but since January, the company's foot traffic has been growing yet again, and in May 2021 it was back up to 122%.


Related: We Tasted All 9 Wendy's Breakfast Sandwiches and This Is the Best


McDonald's

McDonald's During PandemicPhoto credit: SafeGraph • Powered by HiGeorge

Being one of the most enduring and popular names in fast food didn't keep McDonald's from experiencing the same lows as other chains on this list — it, too, saw steep drops in foot traffic in April 2020 and January 2021 — but McDonald's has seen a nice recovery. By May, its traffic was back up to 129% of what it was in January 2020. With a growth strategy focusing on digital, delivery, drive-thru, marketing, and more unveiled amid the pandemic, it's likely the fast-food giant will continue to see gains.


Related: 32 Secrets for Better, Cheaper Meals at Your Favorite Chains


Sonic

Sonic During PandemicPhoto credit: SafeGraph • Powered by HiGeorge

This drive-in fast-food restaurant chain was a major outlier during the COVID-19 pandemic — if anything, Sonic benefited from lockdown measures put in place at other restaurants. For starters, it never fell below its January 2020 level of foot traffic. It actually increased, despite ebbs and flows during each of the ensuing 16 months, until reaching an all-time high of 299% in March 2021. With its May 2021 traffic at 194% of what it was just before the pandemic, the company continues to see gains. As QSR Magazine recently pointed out, "It doesn't take a case study or detective work to understand why Sonic Drive-In experienced a different COVID-19 than most restaurants. After all, it's in the name."


Related: How Drive-In Restaurants Catered to Customers Amid the Pandemic

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