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5 Fast-Growing Restaurant Chains Customers Are Flocking To

These little chains are seeing big traffic.

Bigger is not always better, and when it comes to restaurant chain recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, size is especially not an indicator of success.

Through the trials and tribulations of the past two years, different brands suffered to varying degrees. Those that weathered the pandemic most successfully made a quick pivot to improved online ordering and leaned into that now-ubiquitous concept which was, at the time, completely new: contactless delivery.

But even with new ways of placing and delivering orders, the fast-food scene was still up against a very real fear of public spaces. And then, as social distancing mandates became laxer and people started returning to the world, the industry faced obstacles such as underemployment and criticism for underpaying and undervaluing those employees who had worked through the pandemic.

Now, more than two years out from when these troubles began, chains are recovering at varying speeds. According to a report by Restaurant Business, a slew of smaller brands, it turns out, is leading the charge. These five restaurant chains, in particular, are the leaders of that pack, having grown sales in an amazing way since 2019, increasing their popularity with customers during the worst of the pandemic.

And don't miss 4 Fast-Food Sandwich Chains Customers Are Abandoning.


Wingstop restaurant exterior
Courtesy of Wingstop

One of the biggest pandemic success stories, Wingstop's sales have grown by 57% since 2019. The chain has proven nimble during trying times, from quickly jumping on the ghost kitchen trend to pivoting into chicken thighs during wing shortages.

But Wingstop's success also isn't as surprising when taken in context with its long-term winning streak—the company has seen same-store sales growth every year since 2004.

Raising Cane's

Raising cane's

If you didn't know Raising Cane's (popularly known as Cane's among fans) before 2019, chances are you do now. Sales have increased by more than 62% at the chicken shop, and last summer, the brand made headlines when a reviewer deemed its secret sauce superior to Chick-Fil-A's.

Most recently, Cane's announced it was coming for New York City—a sure sign of mounting success and confidence.

Dutch Bros.

dutch bros
Photo: Shutterstock

Dutch Bros. is a bit of a low-key player in the cafe space. But in the last two years, the blue windmill logo started to get on people's radars, as they were searching for convenient drive-thru coffee shops. And the numbers are there to prove it: Dutch Bros.'s systemwide sales have grown more than 64% since 2019. It has even beaten much bigger competitors Starbucks and Dunkin' in key metrics like foot traffic.

The nearly 500-location chain is expanding rapidly on the West Coast. The next stop? Texas and the Great Plains.

Tropical Smoothie Cafe

Tropical smoothie cafe
Courtesy of Tropical Smoothie Cafe

Tropical Smoothie Cafe—which, for the record, serves much more than just tropical smoothies—has been on the rise for a while now. Perhaps it was the move toward health-consciousness, prompted by the pandemic, that brought new customers to the Cafe. But regardless, as early as 2020, we were writing about this chain's amazing growth.

TSC kicked off 2022 by maintaining momentum with 56 new franchise agreements and 42 new cafe openings—including its first airport location. The chain's sales have gone up more than 64% since 2019 which means the pandemic propelled the smoothie trend to new heights.

Jersey Mike's Subs

jersey mike's subs
Helen89 / Shutterstock

This sub shop has grown its sales by more than 65% since 2019, which is incredible considering the plight of other sandwich shops like Quiznos and Subway. Mike's has somehow succeeded in not only growing its business during the pandemic but also maintaining an impressive standard of health: this year, its Grilled Portabella Mushroom and Swiss Sub ranked as Eat This, Not That's healthiest new fast-food sandwich.

Kaley Roberts
Kaley Roberts is a food writer. Read more about Kaley