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The same shock one felt scanning through sales changes in last year’s Top 500 reverberated once again this year, only it was shock at just how much those same companies increased their sales in 2021.

Meet the 2022 Top 500: The biggest restaurant chains in America

This year’s Top 500, created in partnership with Datassential, shows an industry climbing back onto its feet

Comparing the performance of the restaurant industry’s Top 500 brands in 2021 with the previous year was quite a bit like comparing 2020 with 2019 — only in reverse.

The same shock one felt scanning through sales changes in last year’s Top 500 — with 40, 50 or even higher percentage sales decreases at major national companies — reverberated once again this year, only it was shock at just how much those same companies increased their sales in 2021. In many ways it was like watching a pendulum swing from one side to the other; where Applebee’s was down 31% in 2020 it was up 34% in 2021, where BJ’s was down 34% in 2020 it was up 38% in 2021, and so on.

Indeed, 2021 was a course correction for an unprecedented 2020. Full-service companies in particular recovered the sales they’d lost in 2020, for the most part, with several even beating their performance in 2019. The new muscle they’d developed out of necessity in the pandemic’s darkest days — adapting off-premises capabilities, developing virtual brands, honing their operations to be more efficient — created the opportunity for incremental sales going forward. Customers returned in droves to dining rooms across America, breathing life into more experiential concepts. And yet convenience-oriented brands continued to thrive, buoyed by ongoing demand for delivery and takeout.

Of course, it wasn’t so easy for the whole industry. The triplet monsters of labor, inflation and supply chain reared their heads and suffocated momentum for many restaurants. Traffic still isn’t back to pre-pandemic levels, and some of the sales growth is a mirage, reflecting price hikes that chains were forced to make.

No, 2021 wasn’t quite normal, nor was it the “roaring ’20s” that many hoped for when vaccines were introduced to the public. But it was transformative nonetheless, ushering the Top 500 restaurant chains into our “new normal.”

To get a better understanding of what that new normal looks like, Nation’s Restaurant News is once again proud to partner with Datassential and its Firefly data platform to offer you an in-depth look at the performance across the Top 500 restaurant chains. This issue is chock-full of insights, both in data and the expert analysis of the Nation’s Restaurant News editorial team, and serves to show you not only which brands are rising and which are falling, but also how the forces of change are contorting the restaurant industry into whatever it will become in the future.

Click here to learn more about the methodology behind the report.

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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 datassential.com/firefly.

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