5 Regional Burger Chains With the Highest Quality Food
When it comes to burger chains, the difference between regional and national brands can be difficult to define. Coastal favorites like In-N-Out and Shake Shack, for example, have only a fraction of, say, McDonald's domestic store count—but nonetheless, rank among the top 14 largest burger chains by sales. As countless regional brands have proven over the years—from Culver's and Hardee's to Checker's and Carl's Jr.— "regionality" is by no means a barrier to financial success and popularity with customers.
In fact, of the top 14 burger chains by sales in 2020, nearly half were chains operating fewer than a thousand stores (several of which grossed more than a billion in sales). With such a crowded market, it's worthwhile taking stock of which regional chains are mostly highly rated by customers. Here's a look at four smaller-scale burger chains with the highest quality food, according to fans.
Burger lovers in the state of Washington go nuts for Dick's Drive-in, and not just for its affordable prices and review-worthy customer service. The chain uses 100% real beef, delivered fresh every day, and never frozen in all of its simplistic menu items.
Dick's Drive-in has only eight locations out West and for the past 60 years, frequent customers have vouched for the Deluxe cheeseburgers, hand-cut fries, and hand-dipped milkshakes. It was also ranked #1 in USA Today's annual Best Regional Fast Food for 2022.
Famous for its signature ButterBurger, made with fresh-never-frozen beef, the Wisconsin-based chain has been in the better burger business for nearly 40 years, having first set up shop in 1984. In terms of sales, Culver's ranked among the top 25 U.S. fast-food chains in 2020, pulling in over $1.9 billion in sales with a footprint of just 782 stores. The chain's restaurants are spread across 26 states but are concentrated in Wisconsin, on the west shore of Lake Michigan.
Culver's ranked among the top five in this year's USA Today's Best Regional Fast Food list, and has received rave reviews from Insider's Frank Olito (who called the chain's burgers "the best burger I've ever had") as well as celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, who recently named Culver's as his go-to fast-food joint for road trips. The chain has a loyal following on Twitter, too, with fans going to bat for Culver's as "[the] Midwest's In N Out but better."
Founded in 1950, The Texas chain is beloved for its signature namesake item—a burger "so big that it [takes] two hands to hold." Like Culver's, Whataburger punches above its weight in terms of sales: in 2020, the chain raked in over $2.7 billion with a footprint of just 844 stores. The bulk of Whataburgers is located in Texas, but the chain's footprint already spans 14 states and will continue to expand in the coming years.
A top-ranked regional burger chain, Whataburger is routinely pitted against California chain In-N-Out in terms of quality. (The comparison of the chains is unending on Twitter, and there's even a Reddit discussion devoted to the topic). Hoping to put the matter to rest, Business Insider conducted a side-by-side test in 2019 and judged in favor of In-N-Out. Whataburger won the popular vote the same year, though, in a survey conducted by USA Today.
Cook Out got its start in 1989, and currently has a footprint of 313 stores spanning ten states. Founded in North Carolina, the burger and BBQ chain is mostly concentrated in the Southeast.
Above all else, Cook Out prides itself on the freshness of its ingredients. Similar to In-N-Out, the chain has its own meat commissary (founded in 1999), which keeps its stores supplied with fresh-never-frozen beef—ground, delivered, and cooked fresh every day.
Tasting Table ranked Cook Out alongside In-N-Out and Shake Shack, calling the chain's burgers "basically like eating a burger off the grill in your backyard."
A small-scale Alabama burger chain (with a current footprint of just 20 stores), Milo's Hamburgers got its start in 1946 in Birmingham, founded by Milo Carlton, a former U.S. Army mess cook. In the restaurant's first summer of business, Carlton invented and perfected "Milo's Famous Sauce," taking feedback from customers and finding the perfect balance of sweetness and spiciness.
Today, Milo's is beloved for its flagship burger (which comes "drenched" in the Famous Sauce), as well as its three-ingredient Sweet Tea, which is so popular that the chain runs a separate business bottling the tea and supplying it to retailers.
A fixture of Alabama cuisine, Milo's was named in 2019 one of "100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die" by the Alabama Department of Tourism.
If you pass by one of these regional burger chains, don't skip them! Get your fast-food fix from one of these spots with the highest quality ingredients.
A previous version of this article was originally published on September 11, 2022.