The World’s 5 Largest Restaurant Stocks in 2021

There are a number of ways to measure the largest restaurant businesses in the world. If you go by the number of locations, privately-owned Subway has been dethroned in recent years. According to the company’s website, it had under 38,000 stores worldwide, which puts its fast-food nemesis Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM) on top with more than 50,000 stores in operation.

But let’s divvy out the prizes based on a different metric: total sales. Based on this measure, Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) is far and away the biggest of the big among restaurant stocks.

Image source: Getty Images.

The largest restaurant stocks in 2021

The pandemic has brought new challenges to the doors (literally) of restaurants. Faced with social-distancing mandates and consumer fear over the global health crisis, some of the heaviest foot traffic many chains have seen in the last year was for delivery and pickup. For small establishments, that’s equated to financial hardship or even closure. But large corporations have the resources and scale to absorb the added cost involved with pickup and delivery services.

While some have taken a hit in sales too — Starbucks and top burger chain McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD) included — these mega-restaurant chains are doing just fine. In fact, all of them have more locations in operation in 2021 than they did heading into the pandemic.

Company

Trailing 12-Month Sales

Trailing 12-Month
Net Income (Loss)

Number of Locations Worldwide*

Market Cap

Starbucks

$23.2 billion

$665 million

33,000

$125.5 billion

McDonald’s

$19.2 billion

$4.7 billion

39,000

$165.9 billion

Yum China

$8.3 billion

$784 million

10,500

$25.5 billion

Darden Restaurants

$6.8 billion

($116 million)

1,800

$18.2 billion

Chipotle

$6.0 billion

$356 million

2,750

$40.0 billion

Data source: company filings and YCharts. *Approximate number of locations.

Asterisks, footnotes, and franchise fees

A couple of caveats to the world’s top five food behemoths. Since over 95% of all McDonald’s restaurants are franchised (meaning the company offloads day-to-day operations to licensees and collects a percentage of sales), it reports lower revenue than Starbucks. With a few exceptions, the coffee company primarily owns and operates its own shops, meaning it collects those sales itself. 

A similar dynamic is present with Yum China (NYSE:YUMC) — the sole licensee of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell from former parent company Yum! Brands. Because Yum China operates those stores in mainland China (and owns a few Chinese chains outright too), it reports more revenue than Yum! Brands. But by sheer store count, Yum! Brands is a monster with over 50,000 stores in operation. The company collected $5.7 billion in franchise fees in the trailing 12 months with $904 million in net income. But let’s not take too much away from Yum China. The company has one of the biggest rewards membership programs on the planet with over 300 million customers in its system at the end of 2020.

Also slipping out of the top five is Domino’s Pizza (NYSE:DPZ). With over 17,600 stores around the globe, this is indeed one of the top restaurant brands out there — and an incredibly resilient one seemingly built for the pandemic since delivery is at the heart of its operations. But since it’s also a franchisor, it generated “only” $4.1 billion in sales and $491 million in net income last year. That left primarily restaurant owner-operators Darden Restaurants (NYSE:DRI) (parent of Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, among others) and Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG) to round out the top five.  

Speaking of Darden and Chipotle, both did quite well in the last year as they have embraced delivery and to-go orders amid the pandemic. Chipotle, in particular, could be rewriting its business model as we speak. Its digital sales made up 46% of the total in 2020, thanks to flexible fulfillment across delivery, order-ahead for pickup, and order-ahead for dine-in where still allowed.

A changing dynamic for the restaurant industry

The COVID-19 health crisis has permanently shifted the landscape for the restaurant industry. The top chains in the business were ready with digital transformation and delivery options to meet consumers’ needs, and they will remain best-positioned for growth going forward as a result. 

However, shifting consumer tastes and digital trends may leave the door open for new chains to emerge as industry leaders. Perhaps a smaller fast-food chain can make some headway against the heavyweights, or maybe a company making good use of the efficient ghost kitchen concept (no dining room or storefront, operating solely for delivery or pickup) will come up with the right ingredients for hypergrowth. But for now, the largest restaurant stocks are far and away ahead of the pack and will remain atop the restaurant industry for the foreseeable future.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis — even one of our own — helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.