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For fast food restaurants, the three D’s drove growth in 2021: Drive-thru, delivery and digital.

So-called quick-service restaurants, which include the likes of Starbucks  (SBUX) , McDonald’s  (MCD) , Taco Bell, owned by Yum! Brands  (YUM) , Chipotle  (CMG)  and Panda Express, adapted more easily to pandemic conditions than traditional sit-down restaurants, and many have continued to reduce their in-person dining footprints to focus on online ordering, drive-thru, takeout and delivery service.

Restaurant industry sales overall were down $65 billion in 2021, compared with 2019's pre-pandemic levels, according to the National Restaurant Association, and 90,000 restaurant locations temporarily or permanently closed because of the pandemic.

But quick-service outlets fared far better, according to an annual report by QSR Magazine, and major growth prospects are on the table for fast casuals and fast-food outlets.

McDonald’s, for example, the largest fast-food chain, set a sales record in 2021: $112 billion—a new high mark in company history, and up 21% from the previous year, according to QSR’s annual report, the QSR50, which ranks the biggest fast-food chains.

Digitally-enabled stores like Pizza Hut and Popeye’s steered away from the dine-in space and expanded their drive-thru lanes and haven’t looked back.

Sonic parent company Inspire Brands opened more than 1,400 units in 2021, including over 500 U.S. franchises. The group includes Arby’s, Baskin-Robbins, Dunkin’, and Jimmy John’s, and generated domestic digital sales growth over 35%, year-over-year, to more than $6 billion, the report says. 

To rank the limited-service restaurant companies, QSR Magazine and FoodserviceResults, a research and consulting firm specializing in the foodservice industry, collected information directly from the companies from March to May 2022, filings from the Securities and Exchange Commission, and data from other sources. In some instances, estimates were made.

Here are the biggest fast-food restaurants, ranked by total U.S. systemwide sales, according to the QSR50 report. All information reflects 2021 fiscal performance.

15 mcdonalds Yaoinlove : Shutterstock
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