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2023 performance — and, subsequently, 2024’s first quarter — suggest that the industry has reached a tipping point where consumers are starting to pull back on discretionary spending and trade down to more value-oriented meal options.

Meet the 2024 Top 500: The biggest restaurant chains in America

This year’s Technomic Top 500 shows restaurant-industry growth, but also some warning signs.

At first glance, the Technomic Top 500 appears to show healthy growth for the biggest restaurant brands in the U.S. Sales grew by 7.8% to a robust $424 billion, while unit counts grew by 1.8% to more than 233,000 locations — the highest rate of new location growth since 2016, according to Technomic. 

Look a bit deeper, however, and you’ll spot signs of trouble for the restaurant industry. The 7.8% sales growth is only slightly higher than the 7.1% average increase in consumer prices, illustrating an ongoing trend that carried over from 2022: sales increasing not from traffic so much as inflation-induced price increases. Indeed, 2023 performance — and, subsequently, 2024’s first quarter — suggest that the industry has reached a tipping point where consumers are starting to pull back on discretionary spending and trade down to more value-oriented meal options.  

Just look at the difference in limited-service and full-service restaurants for a warning sign that consumers are adapting their behaviors because of the economy. Limited-service sales growth on the Technomic Top 500 outpaced full-service in 2023 by more than 3 percentage points, 8.5% versus 5%. The difference is even wider between fast casual (11.2% sales growth) and casual (4.7%), offering echoes of the Great Recession, when consumers swapped sit-down meal occasions for more affordable yet high-quality fast-casual options. 

There are certainly signs of life throughout the Top 500, particularly among emerging fast-casual chains. The types of brands that marked 2023 as a “W” — from CAVA to Sweetgreen, Dutch Bros to 7 Brew, KPOT to HTeaO — largely featured fast service and off-premises flexibility, plus unique (often global) dishes that were not only seen as a value but also, in many cases, as an affordable indulgence.

    For complete access to the Top 500 courtesy of Technomic’s Ignite Company data, click here.

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    For more insights on the Technomic Top 500, presented by Nation’s Restaurant News in partnership with Technomic, bookmark this page and return throughout the month of June as we roll out the full list of the 500 biggest chains in America, plus editorial analysis on the biggest storylines ripped from the data. You’ll receive unparalleled access to Top 500 data.

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