How Did Your Favorite Burger Chain Fare During the Pandemic?

Recieving a receipt and ordered food at drive through

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Recieving a receipt and ordered food at drive through
Ziga Plahutar/istockphoto

Burger Chains' Pandemic Performance

While the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a massive blow to many restaurants, those that rely on drive-thrus, like burger chains, managed to survive and even flourish in a time when customers were hesitant to leave their cars. Of the 10 largest burger chains in the U.S., seven saw sales rise in 2020. Unfortunately, Burger King was among the few that didn't do so well, so it's trying to boost sales in an unexpected way: By cutting down on coupons and deals. Will it work? Only time will tell. Here's how it stacks up against other burger chains in the U.S. ranked by 2020 sales growth, according to the Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report.

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

Wolterk / istockphoto


2020 Sales Growth: -9.5%

Hardee's, with about 1,800 locations in the Midwest and Southeast U.S., saw its sales plummet the furthest in 2020, by 9.5% to $1.82 billion. That's enough to push it down to the eighth-largest burger chain in the U.S. It seems breakfast biscuits and over-the-top Thickburgers just weren't enough to keep customers visiting during the pandemic. 

Related: 20 Fast Food Restaurants Then and Now

Carl's Jr.

Carl's Jr.

2020 Sales Growth: -8.5%

Sales at Hardee's sister restaurant, Carl's Jr., also fell significantly in 2020. It reported sales of $1.28 billion, a drop of 8.5% compared to 2019. While the two restaurants operated as one for a number of years, in 2018, the brands were separated by their parent company. Neither had great sales last year, and Carl's Jr. is now last in the top 10 largest burger chains.

Related: Unhealthy Fast Food Breakfasts — and What to Order Instead

Burger King Now

Burger King

2020 Sales Growth: -5.4%

Burger King's total sales in 2020 were $9.68 billion, enough for the No. 3 spot among the top 10 largest burger chains. Still, sales fell by 5.4% from 2019, despite Burger King always offering a plethora of deals during the pandemic. Executives now say that might actually be the problem. The chain, which has typically been the biggest discounter of the three biggest burger chains, says it will be cutting back on paper coupons. Younger customers simply aren't using them, executives say. Instead, BK hopes to make up lost ground with a focus on digital deals and its new loyalty program, Royal Perks. 

Related: The Biggest Fast-Food Flops of All Time

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2020 Sales Growth: 0.3%

The burger chain with the most modest increase in sales in 2020 was McDonald's. And while sales only grew by a tiny amount, the chain still had total sales of over $40 billion, making it the largest burger chain by almost four times over their next competitor. It's such an iconic and household name that it's hard for any competitors to put much of a dent in McDonald's sales, pandemic or not. Free fries don't hurt either. 

Related: 25 Weird and Wonderful McDonald’s International Menu Favorites

Five Guys Burgers and Fries

Five Guys

2020 Sales Growth: 3%

Five Guys, the only fast casual restaurant to crack the top 10 largest burger chains, experienced a modest 3% sales growth in 2020. It's also the only chain on this list that doesn't rely on a drive-thru business model. In fact, none of their locations had a drive-thru until September of 2020, when the first one opened in Myrtle Beach as a pickup window in response to the pandemic. Still, given the sales growth, it seems people were looking for a fast, inexpensive, and high quality to-go meal in place of sit-down restaurant experiences last year. 

Related: 18 Secret Menu Items and Hacks From Your Favorite Restaurants

Jack in the Box
Wikimedia Commons

Jack in the Box

2020 Sales Growth: 4.8%

Known for its irreverent and playful advertising, Jack in the Box had a 4.8% increase in sales in 2020 to $3.67 billion, making it the 5th largest burger chain in the U.S. Despite the pandemic, the chain continued to add limited time offers of popular comfort foods to its menu through the year, giving drive-thru fatigued customers a variety of options. Their ad messages and mediums changed too in order to communicate safety and emphasize drive-thru and online ordering options. 

Related: The Most Over-the-Top Fast Food of the Past 10 Years

Wendy's SuperBar
Ken Wolter/shutterstock


2020 Sales Growth: 4.8%

Wendy's also had sales growth of 4.8% in 2020, with total sales of $10.23 billion, enough for second place behind McDonald's in the top 10 largest burger chains. They succeeded in staying popular during the pandemic by offering a number of long-term meal deals for $4 and $5 and family-sized meals that feed a number of people and are easy and quick to order. Plus, it's hard for other burger chains to beat their spicy chicken sandwich. 

Related: The Best (and Worst) Fast-Food Spicy Chicken Sandwiches

Michael Rivera / Wikimedia Commons


2020 Sales Growth: 5.6%

Whataburger is Texas' darling chain, and Texans turned out to support it in 2020 to the tune of a 5.6% growth in sales over 2019. Like other chains, it shifted its business to an all drive-thru model and closed its dining rooms in early 2020. But customers still flocked to its iconic orange-and-white A-frame buildings in their cars, enough to bump Whataburger to number six on the top 10 largest burger chains list. 

Related: Local Burger Chains the Rest of the Country Needs



2020 Sales Growth: 10.6%

Wisconsin-based chain Culver's had the second largest sales growth of burger chains in 2020 at a whopping 10.6%. The restaurant is known for its Butterburgers and custard, but they also serve a number of homestyle comfort food dinners, like pot roast and mashed potatoes or fried shrimp. It may be those sit down-like meals, along with their extremely efficient drive-thru, that boosted sales as customers looked to emulate full-service restaurant experiences. 

Related: The Most Expensive Item at Every Fast-Food Chain

Sonic Drive-In Restaurant


2020 Sales Growth: 20.1%

The burger chain with the largest increase in sales in 2020 was Sonic, with a whopping 20.1% growth, almost double its next competitor. It's now the fourth largest burger chain, and the 11th largest restaurant chain overall in the U.S. with $5.7 billion in sales. With its drive-in business model, Sonic was already positioned to do well during the pandemic, and its customers didn't need to adjust their ordering or dining habits to continue eating there safely. The chain also continued to release limited time offers to keep the menu fresh, and kept its well-known happy hour and other deals during a time when people were struggling with job loss. Whether this growth signifies the comeback of retro drive-in businesses or if it's just a pandemic fluke remains to be seen.

Related: 30 Classic Drive-In Restaurants Serving Customers During the Pandemic