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If you take fast-food restaurants out of the equation, what are the largest restaurant chains in the United States? Taking their total sales for 2020 into consideration, we compiled the following list of America’s top 10 “sit down” restaurants.
Applebee’s. Glendale, California USA
Total sales for 2020: $4.09 billion
Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar is a restaurant chain that focuses on casual dining and considers their riblets their signature dish. The chain was founded in 1980 by Bill and T.J. Palmer, who wanted to create a restaurant that felt like a neighborhood pub but focused on friendly service and low prices.
Their first restaurant opened in Decatur, Georgia, under the name T.J. Applebee’s Rx for Edibles & Elixirs. A couple of years later, they opened a second restaurant, and the company was already sold by 1983. Bill Palmer did remain president and helped guide the restaurant into a franchise.
In 2007, IHOP purchased Applebee’s International, and when the purchase was made, they changed their name from IHOP Corporation to DineEquity and moved the headquarters to California.
Olive Garden. Orlando, Florida USA
Total sales for 2020: $4.02 billion
Olive Garden began as a unit of General Mills. The first restaurant opened in December of 1982 in Orlando, Florida. It was a pretty big success right out of the gate, and by 1989 there were already 145 Olive Garden restaurants.
The popularity of the Italian-American cuisine was impressive and eventually made Olive Garden the largest chain of Italian-themed full-service restaurants in the country. General Mills had a collection of restaurants, not just Olive Garden, that fell under the Darden Restaurants name.
Eventually, that group was spun off, and Olive Garden continues to be the giant in that chain. In 2011 the company said it would be adding more than 200 Olive Gardens, and they planned on expanding into the Middle East and Asia. It didn’t go as planned, as the company began to lose some revenue, but they’ve since re-focused on maintaining current operations.
Buffalo Wild Wings. Sandy Springs, Georgia USA
Total sales for 2020: $3.67 billion
Originally, the company was called Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck, which is where the nickname BW3 comes from, but the Weck has long been dropped.
Founded in 1982 by Jim Disbrow and Scott Lowery, the two had gone out to dinner with Lowery’s parents for Buffalo-style chicken wings but couldn’t find any restaurants that fit the bill, so they did what anyone would do: they opened their own.
Within six months of opening the restaurant, they brought in a partner, Mark Lutz. Even though none of the three partners had any experience running a restaurant, they expanded and became a chain over the next decade with six more restaurants. By 1992 they began to franchise.
The company hired Sally Smith as a part-time CFO in 1994 and started to make some significant changes, including shifting the strategy from a college bar to casual dining, and they hit the ground running. In 2018, Roark Capital Group and The Wendy’s Company purchased the company.
IHOP. Glendale, California USA
Total sales for 2020: $3.30 billion
The International House of Pancakes first opened in Los Angeles in 1958 and was founded by Jerry Lapin, Al Lapin, and Albert Kallis. The first design features a noticeable A-frame structure that can still be seen in many of their older locations across the United States.
The long name was abbreviated to IHOP in 1973. Known for their pancakes and breakfast food, the menu was greatly expanded, especially in the 1980s, and included lunch and dinner items. In 2007, the IHOP Corporation purchased Applebee’s, and with the two companies, they changed their corporate name and identity to DineEquity.
Chili’s. Dallas, Texas USA
Total sales for 2020: $3.10 billion
Chilli’s Grill & Bar first appeared as the brainchild of Larry Lavine in 1975 and opened in what once was a postal station. The concept was an informal yet full-service restaurant with different hamburgers at affordable prices.
It was originally meant to be an upscale burger shop with southwest décor, but it was expanded to include a lot of Tex-Mex cuisine and dishes influenced by Mexican culture. However, they do also serve burgers.
In 2017 they dropped many of their menu items to focus on ribs, burgers, and fajitas, going back to their roots a bit. This restaurant is probably best known for its iconic jingle and its baby back ribs.
Cracker Barrel. Lebanon, Tennessee USA
Total sales for 2020: $3.07 billion
The full name is Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc., but most people know it simply as Cracker Barrel. The menu is crafted after traditional southern cuisine in the United States, and the décor is designed to look like an old-fashioned general store.
Walk up to the front porch with its wooden rocking chairs, past a stone fireplace, and through a general store filled with treats, knickknacks, and other odds and ends on your way to your table. Dan Evins founded the company in 1969, and the restaurants were smartly positioned near interstate highway exits to draw in travelers.
In the beginning, the restaurants featured gas pumps in their locations, but at this point, they have all been phased out to focus on the store and restaurant.
Texas Roadhouse. Louisville, Kentucky USA
Total sales for 2020: $3.02 billion
With a prominent Texas theme, this American steakhouse chain restaurant got its start in 1993 in Clarksville, Indiana. The founder, W. Kent Taylor, had worked in restaurants and wanted to attend culinary school and open a Colorado-themed restaurant. A former governor of Kentucky helped him out by backing his first restaurant, Buckhead Hickory Grill.
The chain eventually turned into Buckhead Mountain Grill. Unfortunately, starting his next venture would come with several challenges, and it wasn’t until 1993 that he was able to open the first Texas Roadhouse.
Taylor sold his shares in Buckhead and focused on Texas Roadhouse. He again struggled in the beginning before finding the right mix to make it work. Virtually everything at Texas Roadhouse restaurants is made to order, and each store has a baker and butcher/meat cutter on staff.
Denny’s. Spartanburg, South Carolina USA
Total sales for 2020: $2.78 billion
Denny’s was initially called Danny’s Donuts and was a coffee shop that opened in California in 1953. Harold Butler and Richard Jezak opened the original store, but after Jezak left, Butler changed the concept from a donut shop to a coffee shop and renamed it to Danny’s Coffee Shops.
He also expanded their hours, and they stayed open 24 hours a day. Even though the chain was catching on, in 1961, the name was changed from Danny’s to Denny’s, mainly to avoid competition with Coffee Dan’s in L.A.
By 1963 the restaurant began franchising and expanding. In 1977, Denny’s introduced its Grand Slam breakfast, which is still a huge hit and known by most people. Today Denny’s is not just an American staple; it’s expanded to several countries overseas.
Outback Steakhouse. Tampa, Florida USA
Total sales for 2020: $2.64 billion
With an Australian theme, Outback Steakhouse actually focuses on serving American cuisine. Founded in 1988 by Bob Basham, Chris T. Sullivan, Trudy Cooper, and Tim Gannon, the first one opened in Tampa. The chain currently has more than 600 restaurants in 47 states and several other countries.
They have stuck to their American steakhouse cuisine with an Australian theme and moderate prices. The company is best known for its signature “Bloomin’Onion.”
In late 1991, Outback began consolidating the ownership of the Outback locations and changed the corporation’s name to Outback Steakhouse, Inc., and then experienced an explosion of growth. Since then, they have continued to grow and began to look for other avenues, but none have panned out as well as the original.
Red Lobster. Orlando, Florida USA
Total sales for 2020: $2.22 billion
Focused on seafood, Red Lobster first opened its doors in January of 1968 in Lakeland, Florida. Bill Darden and Charley Woodsby founded the restaurant, and they quickly opened a handful more.
In 1970, the small five-restaurant chain was purchased by General Mills. When General Mills spun off Darden Restaurants, Red Lobster went with it. And in 2014, it was again purchased, this time by Golden Gate Capital.
Today you can find Red Lobsters in the United States, China, Ecuador, Guam, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Canada, and the United Arab Emirates.
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