Whether you’re looking for sandwiches or salads, cheeseburgers or chicken, fast food offers cheap and cheerful convenience. The global fast food market is estimated to be worth upwards of £600 billion a year and the largest fast food chains are globally recognised brands.
The fast-food industry marks its influence not just culturally but economically. Every day, hundreds of millions of people visit the contenders for the largest restaurant chain in the world, and this massive consumption doesn’t just satisfy hunger. It drives a significant portion of the global supply chain. From agriculture to transportation, the fast-food industry’s demand for ingredients like beef, chicken, vegetables, potatoes, and bread shapes economies and affects industries worldwide, underlining its vast influence.
Among the biggest chain restaurants, there are some that stand out for their sheer size and global presence. These super-sized whoppers of the fast food world have an interesting and diverse history, with many beginning as small, local businesses before expanding to thousands of locations worldwide. They’re not just food outlets but cultural icons, shaping dining habits and influencing food trends globally.
So what is the largest fast food chain in the world? Let’s find out.
A Short History of the Fast Food Restaurant
There are a number of competing stories as to the origins of the fast food restaurant, but it seems the most likely candidates were the automats of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Automats were restaurants where simple food like sandwiches and cakes were served by vending machines. These became very popular in Europe and America. The first fast food restaurant as would be recognisable today is generally agreed to be White Castle. It opened in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas, and remains today as one of the largest fast food chains in the USA.
It sold five-cent burgers until 1929, when the price was raised to ten cents remaining at that level for twenty years. White Castle became famous for their square slider burgers and, in 2014, Time magazine called the White Castle slider ‘the most influential burger of all time.’
But then in 1948, Richard and Maurice – Dick & Mac – McDonald opened up a burger joint in San Bernardino, California and forever changed the game. Inspired by the White Castle model, as well as Henry Ford’s moving production line, McDonald’s original menu consisted of a fifteen-cent hamburger, a nineteen-cent cheeseburger, ten cents for French fries and twenty-cents for a triple-thick shake.
Today, almost all types of food from around the world are available as fast food and it’s estimated that there may be somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 fast food restaurants around the world, but what is the biggest fast food chain in the world?
A list of the largest fast food chains can be measured in a number of ways – by number of customers, revenue or employees. For the purposes of this countdown, it will be measured by the number of locations around the world.
Headquarters: Newcastle, UK | Locations: Approx. 2,300 | Founded: 1939
The home of the most famous sausage roll in the world was founded by John Gregg as a family bakery at the outset of World War II. The first retail shop opened in Newcastle in 1951.
By the early 2000s, the company started to transition away from a traditional bakery into a ‘food on the go’ business, technically known as QSR, or quick-service restaurants.
The company employs around 22,000 people, and like many of the biggest chain restaurants, Greggs offers regional specialities including Scotch Pie in Scotland.
Headquarters: Johannesburg, South Africa | Locations: Approx. 1,200 | Founded: 1987
In 1987, Two friends, Portuguese-born Fernando Duarte and South African Robert Brozin, went for dinner at Chickenland in Johannesburg, a Portuguese-Mozambican restaurant serving flame-grilled chicken with a spicy pepper called peri-peri. They loved it so much they bought the restaurant for 80,000 rand – around £25,000 at the time – and renamed it Nando’s after Fernando’s son.
While it isn’t the biggest fast food chain in the world, it’s certainly one of the most popular. It’s even said that Nando’s has the UK’s largest collection of South African art, with around 5,000 pieces displayed in their restaurants.
Headquarters: Michigan, USA | Locations: Approx. 20,000 | Founded: 1960
In 1960, brothers Tom and James Monaghan took over a Michigan pizza restaurant owned by Dominick DeVarti, called DomiNick’s. A $500 down payment followed by a borrowed $900 secured the store. James, a postman, didn’t want to leave his job, so he sold his half of the business to his brother for an old VW Beetle. Tom sold out in 1998 for $1 billion.
In the meantime, DeVarti didn’t allow them to use the DomiNick’s name, so it was changed to Domino’s. Today, it’s a globally recognised brand and a contender for the biggest fast food chain in the world. The three dots on the corporate logo represent the three original stores, and you can get Domino’s in around 90 countries. According to the company themselves, they serve around one million customers a day.
Headquarters: Kentucky, USA | Locations: Approx. 27,000 | Founded: 1930
Harland Sanders left home at thirteen to find work, and spent the next two and a half decades going from job to job. In 1930 he took over an old petrol station just outside North Corbin, Kentucky. The Colonel, as he was affectionately known, started serving travellers the fried chicken recipe his mother taught him to cook, and the rest is history.
By the early 1960s there were over 600 Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in America. They were well on the way to becoming one of the largest fast food chains in the world. You can get the Colonel’s finger lickin’ good chicken in almost 150 countries, including in a former train station in Azerbaijan.
Headquarters: Connecticut, USA | Locations: Approx. 37,000 | Founded: 1965
In 1965, student Fred DeLuca asked a friend of the family, nuclear physicist Dr Peter Buck, how to pay for his college tuition. Buck lent DeLuca $1,000 to open a sandwich shop in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was called ‘Pete’s Super Submarines’. On the first day, he sold 312 sandwiches costing between 49c and 69c. In 1968, the name Subway was used for the first time.
Second only to McDonald’s for the title of biggest fast food chain in the world, today Subway operates in over 100 countries.
Headquarters: Chicago, USA | Locations: Approx. 40,000 | Founded: 1940
McDonald’s is the largest fast food chain in the world. Around two million people work for the company or in the restaurants (making them the second-largest private employer in the world behind Wal-Mart). It’s said they serve around 69 million customers a day.
Introduced to the menu in 1968, the Big Mac became a staple at McDonald’s, which stands out among global fast food chains for its significant role in popularising fast food worldwide. Moreover, McDonald’s iconic golden arches have emerged as one of the most immediately recognisable corporate symbols across the globe.
Hungry For Success: The World’s Largest Fast Food Chains
There are lots of famous names missing from this list, including Burger King with almost 20,000 locations, Pizza Hut (around 19,000), Taco Bell (around 8,000), and Wendy’s (around 7,000), and their vast global reach is no less remarkable.
McDonald’s, the largest fast food chain in the world, and the dozens and dozens of pretenders to its throne, with their expansive global reach and staggering marketing spend, have become more than just shiny, bright and inviting places to grab a burger, a pizza or some chicken. They are cultural symbols, reflecting the shifts in consumer preferences, dietary habits, and economic trends. As they adapt to changing market demands with healthier options and innovative technology, they continue to shape the culinary landscape.