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These Fast-Food Chains Are Opening Hundreds of Locations This Year

And you can expect to see them equipped with the latest contactless technology.
FACT CHECKED BY Faye Brennan

As of December, at least 110,000 U.S. restaurants have closed permanently or long-term due to the devastating effects of the pandemic. That's one in every six U.S. eateries, according to Bloomberg. While this number includes every type of restaurant out there—from independent establishments to fast-food chains—experts say the overwhelming majority of closures come from the folding of small businesses.

The restaurants that are best-positioned to survive, and even thrive, throughout the pandemic are fast-casual chains that rely on off-premise sales. Drive-thrus have become the most coveted type of real estate for fast-food companies, and many brands are looking to expand their footprint by doubling-down on new restaurant designs that emphasize digital orders and contactless transactions.

As fourth-quarter earnings from 2020 are released across the industry, here are some of the key fast-food restaurants that have announced plans to open hundreds of new, tech-forward locations in 2021. And for more, don't miss McDonald's Is Making These 8 Major Upgrades.

1

Chipotle

Chipotle restaurant
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The fast-casual Mexican chain has seen meteoric growth in digital orders in the last quarter of 2020 and attributes their success to a new, modernized drive-thru. Dubbed the "Chipotlane," the drive-thru lane is centered around order-ahead digital transactions, which Chipotle sees as central to its growth this year. In a recent earnings call, CEO Brian Niccol announced the chain will be opening as many as 200 new locations, 70% of which will have a Chipotlane—making it easier than ever to grab a burrito to-go.

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2

McDonald's

mcdonalds
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According to a recent earnings call, McDonald's is seeing a quicker recovery on their home turf than in some of the international markets. Their U.S. same-store sales grew by 5.5% in the fourth quarter of 2020, and the chain plans to keep the U.S. momentum going by expanding its menu (hello, new chicken sandwiches!) and footprint. McDonald's plans to open about 500 restaurants in the U.S. in 2021 as it doubles-down on contactless transactions via digital, delivery, and drive-thru operations.

3

Church's Chicken

churchs chicken restaurant
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The Southern chain with a long-lived fried chicken legacy had a more successful 2020 than most fast-food brands. It continued its four-year growth streak and announced that it would be adding dozens of new locations to its fleet of 900 U.S. restaurants. "Every year has been better than the last for us—in sales and in average check—and that's in spite of a global pandemic and while we have been rolling out various operational changes and improvements," said CEO Joe Christina. "That success is 100% rooted in the determination and hard work we have put into our franchisee-franchisor relationships."

4

BurgerFi

burger fi
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The upscale burger chain may not have a long-standing legacy, but it sure makes up for it in quality. BurgerFi experienced tremendous growth and an increase in revenue last year thanks to its investment in digital platforms and third-party delivery partners. Now, the 125-unit chain is eyeing a significant expansion with 30-35 new restaurants slated to open in 2021 and 40-45 in 2022.

5

Shake Shack

shake shack storefront
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Getting your hands on a juicy Shake Shack burger will become easier than ever this year. Not only is the chain opening its very first drive-thru in Florida this year, it's also expanding with up to 90 new locations across the U.S. in the next two years. The beloved burger chain said it is targeting both urban and suburban "top-tier real estate" spots for its new restaurants, which will incorporate new formats like walk-up and drive-up windows, curbside pick-up capabilities, and in-store pick-up shelves.

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Mura Dominko
Mura Dominko is a senior editor at Eat This, Not That!. Read more