The food service franchise industry represents an attractive opportunity, projected to reach nearly $300 billion by 2027. For entrepreneurs interested in operating a food business, partnering with an established food franchise can provide benefits like an proven concept, brand recognition, and corporate support.
This guide provides an extensive overview of the top food franchises across categories like fast food, fast casual, pizza, coffee, frozen yogurt, burgers, sandwiches, and more. We’ll analyze the costs, attributes, ROI, and opportunities for leading food franchise brands.
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Benefits of Food Service Franchising
Here are some of the key advantages of investing in a food franchise rather than an independent startup restaurant or eatery:
Food franchises offer lower risk with an established, proven menu and business model to follow. Independent concepts face higher chance of failure.
Speed to Market
Opening with an existing brand provides instant name recognition and faster ramp up versus building a customer base for a new restaurant.
Ongoing training, vendor relationships, technology access, marketing resources, menu R&D and more offer valuable support.
Corporate buying results in lower costs for equipment, ingredients, and supplies compared to independent operations.
Lenders more readily approve loans for proven franchise concepts with good credit than unproven startups.
Passive Income Potential
At scale with managers hired, food franchises can run smoothly with mostly absentee ownership.
While costs are higher upfront than independent launches, partnering with proven food brands provides new franchisees with systems, supply chains, and customer awareness that enhances the probability of success.
Top Fast Food Franchise Chains
The fast food franchise segment represents a $200+ billion market. Here are some of the leading fast food franchise opportunities based on brand strength, average unit volumes, and return on investment potential:
The world’s leading fast food chain with over 38,000 locations globally.
High average unit volumes of $2.7 million with 25% profit margins.
Extremely costly to open with total startup investment of $1 million – $2.2 million.
Largest fast food chain by units with over 37,000 locations worldwide.
Lower startup costs from $116,000 – $263,000.
Average unit volumes around $420,000 are lower than competitors.
Most popular chicken quick service chain with over 22,000 units globally.
Strong sales averaging $1.2 million per location.
High startup costs from $1.3 million – $2.5 million.
Largest pizza chain in the U.S. with over 7,500 domestic locations.
Average volumes around $900,000 but high competition.
Total startup costs range from $297,000 – $2.1 million.
For new entrepreneurs, expanding fast food chains like KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut offer the benefits of globally recognized brands and astronomic customer demand, although startup and operating costs are very high.
Top Fast Casual Franchise Chains
Fast casual chains offer nicely between the affordability of fast food and quality of casual dining. Top fast casual franchises include:
Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches
Specializes in quick submarine sandwiches at over 2,800 units.
Strong volumes averaging $1.35 million.
Initial investment of $544,000 is low for food franchises.
Panera Bread Bakery & Cafe
Bakery-cafe chain with over 2,000 units, known for sandwiches, salads, and soups.
Sales average $2.7 million per location.
Startup investment ranges from $600,000 – $1.8 million.
Five Guys Burgers and Fries
A leading better burger franchise with over 1,500 locations.
High volumes averaging $1.35 million per unit.
Initial investment cost is $306,000 – $670,000.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
Pioneer of build-your-own Mexican fast casual with over 2,500 units.
Sales average $2.5 million.
Startup investment is $891,000 – $2.57 million.
Fast casual provides a great mix of affordable counter-service combined with higher quality food and ambiance. Chains like Noodles & Company, Blaze Pizza, and McAlister’s Deli also present appealing fast casual franchise opportunities.
Top Pizza Franchise Chains
Pizza remains one of the most universally popular restaurant segments. Leading pizza franchises include:
Global pizza leader with over 18,000 locations.
Average unit volumes around $900,000.
High startup costs from $297,000 – $2.1 million.
Second largest pizza chain in U.S. with over 5,000 units.
Average volumes around $850,000.
Initial investment of $129,000 – $844,000.
Largest worldwide pizza chain by units, with over 13,000 stores.
High average volumes of $1.3 million.
Startup investment ranges from $119,000 – $461,000.
Third largest pizza chain in U.S. with over 4,000 units.
Low average volumes under $900,000.
Very affordable startup costs from $360,000 – $550,000.
Proven pizza leaders like Papa Murphy’s, Marco’s, and Pizza Inn also offer strong franchise opportunities as consumers continually crave pizza.
Top Frozen Yogurt Franchises
Frozen yogurt provides a healthier dessert option that became extremely popular in the 2000s. Leading frozen yogurt franchises include:
Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt
Largest froyo franchise with over 350 units worldwide.
Average volumes $550,000.
Affordable startup costs $260,000 – $450,000.
Second most popular froyo chain with over 300 locations.
Average unit volumes $700,000+.
Initial investment $350,000 – $585,000.
Interior Asia-themed stores bringing Taiwanese bubble tea drinks alongside froyo.
Over 250 units globally.
Startup costs $184,000 – $392,000.
Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt
Grassroots froyo franchise with 185+ locations.
Average sales volumes around $400,000.
Low startup costs at $100,000 – $385,000.
Frozen yogurt remains popular thanks to demand for sweet, customizable, healthier desserts. Franchisees benefit from low labor needs and minimal food costs.
Top Ice Cream Franchise Concepts
Ice cream and gelato franchises let consumers indulge in decadent, creamy desserts. Top ice cream franchises include:
World’s largest ice cream chain with over 7,800 units.
Average volumes $632,000.
Startup costs $362,000 – $525,000.
Famous for personalized, hand-mixed ice cream creations.
Over 1,400 locations with average volumes $461,000.
Investment costs $277,000 – $585,000.
Authentic Italian-style gelato franchisor with 50+ units.
Average volumes $600,000+.
Startup investment $350,000 – $600,000.
Specializing in homemade ice cream with mix-in options.
Over 200 franchises globally.
Initial costs $180,000 – $450,000.
Ice cream presents perpetual demand given its tasty, indulgent qualities. Adding mix-ins, syrups and customization creates differentiation in a crowded space.
Top Burger Franchise Chains
Burgers remain one of America’s staple comfort foods. Leading burger franchise opportunities include:
Global burger leader, generating around 9% of revenue from burgers.
Average unit volumes exceed $2.7 million.
Extremely high startup costs from $1 – $2.2 million.
Fastest growing better burger chain with over 1,500 units.
Strong average volumes of $1.4 million.
Initial investment of $306,000 – $670,000.
Second largest burger quick serve chain with over 6,500 units.
Average sales per store are $1.7 million.
Franchise startup costs range from $1.4 – $2.5 million.
Better burger chain focused on premium ingredients and sustainability.
Growing chain with average volumes around $1.8 million.
Initial investment costs $596,000 – $876,000.
Premium ingredients and build-your-own customization have fueled better burger chains, while leaders McDonald’s and Wendy’s have so much brand equity that they continue dominating.
Top Sandwich Franchises
Sandwich brands let owners serve up quick, portable meals for lunch and dinner crowds. Leading sandwich franchises include:
World’s largest sandwich chain with over 37,000 restaurants globally.
Low startup costs from $116,000 – $263,000.
Average volumes are $420,000+ but highly location dependent.
Fast growing sandwich franchise with over 2,800 units.
Higher average volumes around $1.35 million.
Initial investment $544,000.
Jersey Mike’s Subs
Surging submarine sandwich chain with over 2,000 locations.
Average unit volumes $750,000 – $1.1 million.
Startup investment $186,000 – $775,000.
Specializes in hot subs and meals. Has 1,200+ units.
Average sales over $1 million per location.
Initial investment $136,000 – $761,000.
The variety of sandwiches offers something for everyone. Established brands have optimized ordering, prep, and unit economics. Customization also boosts appeal.
Other Leading Food Franchise Concepts
Beyond the largest chains, niche food segments offer variety:
Leading fast casual noodle shop franchise with 450+ units.
Average unit volumes $1.4 million.
Startup costs between $592,000 – $797,000.
Specializes in artistically crafted fresh fruit baskets and bouquets.
Over 1,100 units worldwide.
Initial investment $254,000 – $370,000.
Leading smoothie and juice bar franchise, with over 800 locations.
Average sales $719,000 per unit.
Startup investment $277,000 – $587,000.
Serves Italian ice, custards, and specialty frozen treats.
Over 600 franchised locations.
Initial costs $120,000 – $385,000.
Popular fast casual Middle Eastern cuisine chain.
Over 100 units with sales averaging $1.2 million.
Startup costs $289,000 – $864,000.
These diverse concepts all fill unique consumer niche needs despite being smaller chains. Narrower focus can drive loyal followings.
Evaluating a Food Franchise Opportunity
When researching food franchises, focus analysis on:
- Concept – Does it provide clearly differentiated value? Is it showing growth versus declining relevancy?
- Unit Economics – Average volumes, profit margins, investment return rates.
- Training & Support – How thorough is the training program? Ongoing support infrastructure?
- Marketing – Are major ad funds and campaigns provided?
- Executive Leadership – What is their experience? How engaged are they?
- Traction – How rapidly are new units growing? Is demand outpacing supply?
- Reviews – What do current franchisees say about their experience and satisfaction?
- Territory – Is prime territory available in your local market? Do you have rights to expand units over time or sell at a profit later?
Thorough due diligence allows picking a food franchise poised for success. Verify all claims in the Franchise Disclosure Document.
FAQ About Food Franchise Opportunities
Here are some frequently asked questions about investing in a food franchise:
What food franchises are most profitable?
Measured by average unit volumes, Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Chipotle are consistently top performers year-over-year.
Which requires the least money to start?
Subway has among the lowest franchise startup costs at $116k – $263k. Other low-cost food franchises include coffee kiosks, ice cream shops, and pizza concepts.
Should I buy an existing or new franchise?
Buying an existing unit has some benefits like immediate customers and trained staff. But costs are often higher and locations are fixed.
What qualifications are needed?
Food service experience is preferred but not always required. Most important is sufficient capital, commitment to execute the model, and local community ties.
How much can I expect to make?
Profitability potential varies drastically by brand, location, and operations. Conduct thorough research on average volumes and margins. Ask specific brands for profitability data.
Can food franchises be run absentee?
Most require owner-operators initially with gradual scaling to managers overseeing day-to-day. But some concepts like Subway enable absentee ownership even early on.
Satisfy Customers’ Appetite for Quality
In the ever-growing food service industry, partnering with proven franchise brands provides key advantages versus going independent. Conduct in-depth research to discover if a specific food franchise aligns with your skills, interests, and market demand. With hard work and persistence, a food franchise investment can deliver satisfying lifestyle and financial rewards for many years to come.