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10 takeaways from the Top 500 and 2020 performance

There were winners and losers—and the gulf between them widened.

For the most part, the restaurant industry really pulled it off.

That was one of the fundamental takeaways from the annual Top 500 report, which takes a comprehensive look at the sales and unit growth numbers for the nation’s largest 500 restaurant chains in 2020.

For nearly five decades, Nation’s Restaurant News has followed the performance of the largest 200 restaurant chains across the country. This year, for the first time, we are widening the aperture in partnership with Datassential, which produces its Firefly report on restaurant brand performance.

This comprehensive database gives the long-awaited perspective on how the global pandemic of 2020 hurt — and helped — the largest 500 restaurant chains, which make up about 80% of the restaurant industry overall, from the 22,177-unit Subway to the 39-unit Lazy Dog Restaurant and Bar.

It was truly a year that invites “best of times/worst of times” cliches, and the data has many stories to tell.

One overarching result of the pandemic is that “the gap between haves and have nots, big and small chains, and between chains and independents, got blown wide open in 2020,” said Mark Brandau, Datassential group manager.

For restaurant companies, survival through the pandemic depended on “a couple of big structural advantages that chains have over independents, and that limited-service brands have over full-service brands,” said Brandau. “It’s undeniable that chains took market share from independents, and limited-service brands had more tools in their toolkit to stay open,” including drive thrus, an established off-premises business and the best real estate in suburbia, where much of the dining public was sheltering at home.

What this data shows, however, is that the largest restaurant chains “did an amazing job with the Herculean task of changing their operating style overnight,” Brandau said.

In this report, we will dive deep into some of these numbers to take a closer look at the impact of 2020. Here are the broad-stroke highlights.

Read more:

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The Top 500 report is presented by Nation’s Restaurant News and Datassential, using insights from Datassential’s proprietary Firefly platform. Datassential’s Firefly is the ultimate strategic tool — No. 1 operator database, lead generator, customer marketing and intelligence platform, all-in-one. Learn more about getting complete access at

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