Back in June, we shared the findings from the Nation’s Restaurant News Top 500 report, the industry publication’s annual list of the biggest restaurant chains in America based on systemwide sales. That report on companies’ 2020 sales figures was illuminating for all kinds of reasons, namely the ways in which Subway is still struggling and Wendy’s used breakfast to leap ahead in the rankings. But the top 500 list was all about total systemwide sales, in dollars. Which companies are actually growing the fastest, in terms of year-over-year domestic sales growth? Luckily, NRN has come through yet again with a list of the top 25 contenders. Can you guess which chain was number one in 2020?
We almost guarantee you that you cannot. Last year, that honor went to Shake Shack, which outperformed both MOD Pizza (a perennial presence on these growth lists, it seems) and something called First Watch, which focuses on breakfast/brunch/lunch and fell out of the rankings entirely this time around. Number one on the 2021 list is... Crumbl Cookies. And food porn almost certainly played a key role in its success.
It should be said, first off, that Crumbl has only been around since 2017 (formed in Utah in 2017 by “two crazy cousins”), and it’s a fact that newer, smaller businesses tend to see the highest growth numbers because their small operations mean they have nowhere to go but up. Still, the growth achieved by Crumbl is nothing short of meteoric: NRN notes that 2020 saw total domestic sales of $53.4 million, which amounts to year-over-year growth of 93%. For comparison’s sake, the largest growth percentage on last year’s list was 34.5%. Crumbl absolutely crushed it.
Gee, I wonder what on earth could have made people turn to gourmet frosted cookies in 2020? It wasn’t just an increased reliance on easy takeaway options and comfort food—the fact that we were all glued to our phones for most of the year surely helped the chain too. Crumbl’s TikTok account, 1.8 million followers strong, is a food porn paradise, featuring glamorous compilations of mounds of soft dough, expert-level frosting techniques, and of course, the classic slow-motion pull-apart shot where the chocolate chips form melty bridges across each half of the cookie. Add in the fact that its cookies come in a millennial pink box and you’ve got a recipe for viral success. According to the company’s website, Crumbl now operates over 200 brick-and-mortar locations in 32 states. (And by the way, check out the homepage of the website—even that is a full-frame close-up video compilation with swirls of caramel and frosting that feel somehow... lascivious.)
While clicking through the entire Top 25 list is well worth it, I can’t resist divulging what the second fastest-growing chain in America is. It is, I’m pleased to share with you, Wahlburgers, with $76 million in sales and growth of 37% last year. It’s hard to believe this celeb-spawned chain is already ten years old, and that this is the second time in the last three years that it has made the list of fastest-growing restaurants. Surely the pandemic’s push for delivery and easy handhelds gave the chain a boost, but honestly, it was already lifting itself up well before that. Talk about a job wahl done.