It's a fast paced world we live in. Thanks to the Internet, information is available in an instant, stocks can be traded in real time with the click of a button and you can buy just about anything you can think of on the spot (with overnight delivery). Digital cameras render crystal clear photographs ready for viewing in a single second. Cell phones put us in touch with anyone we want nearly instantly. Americans simply don't like to wait. The same can be said for how we eat. Since the first fast-food chain, White Castle, opened in 1921, Americans have grown accustomed to getting the food we want in short order.
Fast-food has since spread, with more than 30,000 McDonald's restaurants alone located around the world. McDonald's is the undisputed king of fast-food, serving 52 million people a day in more than 100 countries [source: McDonald's]. That's a lot of Chicken McNuggets. In an article in Rolling Stone magazine in 1998, a survey of American schoolchildren revealed that 96 percent of them could identify Ronald McDonald -- only Santa Claus ranked higher at the time. The same article claimed that McDonald's famous "Golden Arches" had become more widely recognized around the world than the Christian cross [source: Schlosser].
Of course, all this fast-food has led to a problem -- obesity. In 2004, the National Center for Health published a study on obesity in the United States. Between 1962 and 2000, the percentage of obese Americans swelled from 13 percent to 31 percent [source: CDC]. It's probably no coincidence that fast-food restaurants saw tremendous growth as well. The National Bureau for Economic Research published a report in November 2008 that stated that childhood obesity could be cut by as much as 18 percent if fast-food ads were banned [source: Reuter's].
Obese or not, people love their fast-food favorites. That's why we're going to take a look at 10 of the biggest selling fast-food menu items in America on the following pages.
It may feel like a newer franchise, but Subway actually started out in 1965 as a means for co-founder Fred DeLuca to help pay for college. Since then, DeLuca has been able to pay for a lot more than tuition fees. In 2006, he was named by Forbes Magazine as number 242 on the list of richest Americans, with a net worth of about $1.5 billion [source: Forbes]. In 2008, Subway celebrated being in business for 43 years. The sandwich chain has grown from a single shop to more than 30,000 franchises in 88 countries around the world [source: Subway].
Subway stands alone as the largest sandwich chain in the world and operates more stores in the United States, Canada and Australia than McDonald's does. How does this kind of growth translate into sub sales? In the United States alone, Subway sells almost 2,800 sandwiches and salads every minute. The company's Web site also touts another interesting fact -- if all the sandwiches made by every Subway store in a year were placed end-to-end, they would wrap around the Earth at least six times. No word on how many millions of gallons of mayonnaise that means.
Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy is probably best known for two things: He's credited with inventing the boneless chicken sandwich and his restaurant chain is closed on Sunday. It's unthinkable today to imagine a life without the chicken sandwich, but in 1946 it was all about the hamburger. It's also hard to believe that a corporation that has annual sales of more than $2 billion each year would close down one day a week. Cathy's dedication to his Christian faith has kept the Sabbath wide open for his employees since day one.
Originally a shopping-mall-only restaurant, Chick-fil-A expanded to freestanding stores in 1986 and now operates more than 1,300 franchises in 37 states. The menu has branched out somewhat over the years, adding salads, nuggets and wraps, but the restaurant's bread and butter (literally) is still the original chicken sandwich. Its beauty is in its simplicity -- a pressure-fried chicken breast with pickle slices on top, served between a buttered bun [source: Chick-fil-A].
Pizza may be Italian in origin, but it has become a truly American food because of how popular it is in the United States. In 2007, the total pizza sales in America nearly hit $37 billion and as of July 2008, there were more than 75,000 pizza stores sliding pies into the oven. Independently operated pizzerias make up a slim majority of these totals. The chain Pizza Hut stands as the largest and most successful franchise with almost 14 percent of the total chain sales at a total of $5.1 billion in 2007 [source: Pmq.com].
The original Pizza Hut was opened on campus at Wichita State University in 1958, but didn't become a franchise until the following year. The company now operates almost 15,000 units in the United States alone. The chain is known for its all-you-can-eat pizza and salad buffet and for putting some unusual spins on the classic pie -- crusts stuffed with cheese that you're supposed to eat backwards, "The Insider," which is kind of like a pizza sandwich and another concoction called "The P'Zone." Pizza Hut is the number one seller of pizzas in the United States.
Fried chicken is known as a staple food of the Southern United States, but its appeal is clear all over the world. In 1930, in the throws of the Great Depression, a man named Harland Sanders opened a fried chicken restaurant in the front room of a gas station in Corbin, Ky. The Sanders' Court & Café would grow and expand as the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) franchise and become the most popular chicken restaurant on Earth.
As of 2008, KFC operates more than 11,000 restaurants in more than 80 countries. Founder Colonel (honorary) Harlan Sanders first began selling his famous "Original Recipe" chicken with its 11 herbs and spices in 1940, and the iconic bucket came along about 17 years later. In 1969, KFC became a publicly traded company, and in 2006, the company sold more than one billion chicken dinners [source: KFC]. Even though KFC was doing well on its own, it joined YUM! Brands, Inc., in 2002 to become part of the largest restaurant group in the world. KFC's partner chains include Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, both listed on this top 10.
If small, square hamburgers are your thing, then you're probably a fan of either Krystal or White Castle. Both fast-food chains are known for the small hamburgers that customers gobble down several at a time. Since White Castle is the original, we'll give them the nod in this case. Walter Anderson and Billy Ingram partnered up in 1921 to create the first fast-food hamburger restaurant, selling their signature "Slyders" for five cents each. The restaurant's name matches the look -- each White Castle restaurant looks like a white castle.
In 1949, White Castle made a change that would end up being its legacy. It made five holes in each square patty and cooked the meat on top of a bed of diced onions. The burger never makes contact with the griddle and is cooked by the steaming onion. The holes allow for a faster, more even cook. The buns are placed on top of the meat to soak up extra flavor as well. Add a slice of dill pickle and you have an American institution -- the Slyder.
Even though White Castle only has 382 stores as of 2009, it sells 500,000,000 Slyders a year and has served 16 billion since 1949. It was the first to reach one million burgers sold and then the first to reach one billion [source: White Castle].
Not many fast-food restaurant founders have been as visible as Wendy's Dave Thomas was. In a bold marketing move, Thomas became the face of the franchise on TV commercials in 1989, and continued doing so until he passed away in 2002. The first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant was opened by Thomas and co-founder John Schuessler in 1969 in Columbus, Ohio. It was important for Dave from the beginning that Wendy's be a cut above its competitors in terms of food quality. If you look closely at the famous logo, you'll see the words "Quality is our Recipe" above the red-haired pigtails the company's mascot "Wendy" wears.
You won't find a heat lamp with a rack of burgers sitting beneath it at a Wendy's. Each "single" hamburger is made-to-order. The classic burger is a 4-ounce, square patty served on a bun with your choice of toppings -- lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion and whatever condiment you fancy. Wendy's ranks third on the burger chain list behind Burger King and McDonald's, with more than 6,500 locations worldwide. In 2006, Wendy's had total revenues of almost $2.5 billion and employed 57,000 people [source: Wendy's].
The chain is also famous for its chocolate version of the milkshake, the Frosty. It was one of the original five menu items and remains a top seller. Dave Thomas wanted to make a milkshake so thick you had to eat it with a spoon and he was pretty successful -- Wendy's sells about 300 million each year [source: Hentges].
Each category of fast-food chain restaurant has its "best in show." There can be only one best selling sub sandwich, one best burger, one best taco. In the middle of the hamburger craze in 1964, Arby's found its niche in the land of roast beef. The Raffel brothers opened the first Arby's Roast Beef Restaurants in Boardman, Ohio. Beef was a big hit with the burger chains, so the Raffels decide that instead of grinding it up, they'd slow roast it and slice it thin. The name Arby's comes from spelling out the initials R.B. -- for Raffel brothers, not "roast beef."
Arby's operates more than 3,500 restaurants in the United States and Canada, and the chain's most popular sandwich is still the signature roast beef sandwich. The beef is sliced fresh for each sandwich and customers can top it themselves with the famous Arby's and Horsey sauces. In 2008, Arby's purchased Wendy's for $2.34 billion, forming the third largest fast-food company in the world.
Just like Arby's cornered the roast beef market, Taco Bell has carved out a spot as the number one Mexican fast-food restaurant chain. If you've ever stopped and wondered just what the heck a "taco bell" is, you'll be glad to know that a man named Glen Bell started the franchise and named it after himself. He started the chain in 1962 in California at a time when Mexican food was pretty out of the ordinary in America. The first franchise opened in 1964 and now, the company boasts more than 5,800 restaurants in the United States, Canada, Guam, Aruba, Dominican Republic, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Asia, Europe and the Philippines [source: Taco Bell].
The popular chain serves about 2 billion customers a year and perhaps not coincidentally, also sells roughly 2 billion of its signature tacos. The franchise plows through 3.8 billion tortillas, 62 million pounds of pinto beans, 106 million pounds of cheese and 295 million pounds of ground beef a year [source: Taco Bell]. It made revenues of $6.8 billion in 2005, part of that coming from the million burritos it sells each year. Add in quesadillas, nachos and some signature spins on Mexican classics, like double-decker tacos (a soft flour tortilla wrapped around a hard shell corn tortilla taco) and odd items like the "Crunchwrap Supreme" and you've got a gut pleasing late-night drive-thru destination.
Burger King isn't quite the king -- that distinction resides with McDonald's. But BK has a solid grip on the number two spot, with 11,200 franchises. You can find Burger King franchises in the United States and 69 other countries around the world. Burger loving entrepreneurs James McLamore and David Edgerton started BK in Miami, Fla., in 1954. The Whopper became their signature burger in 1957. One thing that distinguishes Burger King from its competitors is the fact that the burgers are flame broiled instead of cooked on a griddle. The idea was to give the meat that home-grilled taste.
The Whopper is a one-quarter pound beef patty between a sesame seed bun with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, pickles, ketchup and sliced onion. Of course, it is Burger King, so you can always "have it your way." This is the advertising slogan from 1974 that the chain is still most well-known for. The BK Web site claims that there are actually 221,184 possible ways you can have it your way. Even though it's a distant second place to McDonald's, total sales of all the Burger Kings are still massive; BK restaurants in 2007 surpassed the $13 billion mark [source: Burger King].
There can be only one. One top dog, one that stands head and shoulders above the rest. One that transcends the mundaneness of a mere fast-food chain to become something else altogether -- the symbol of a country, the face of an industry: McDonald's. If you're American, the name itself conjures up an embarrassingly high number of familiar images and memories.
The McDonald brothers started the franchise as a hot dog stand in 1937 and changed things up in 1948 by making the switch to burgers and fries made using a speedy and efficient assembly line system. Things took a fortuitous turn when the McDonald brothers met a milkshake machine salesman named Ray Kroc. Kroc was impressed with the operation and asked to be included as a franchise agent, splitting profits with the brothers for growing the chain. Kroc opened the first franchise in 1955 in Des Plaines, Ill., and the rest is fast-food history. He bought the brothers out for $2.7 million in 1961, and the franchise has grown to operate more than 31,000 stores in over 100 countries [source: McDonald's].
The Big Mac is the most popular fast-food item on Earth. The famous jingle from the 1975 TV commercial taught Americans the ingredients for the Big Mac -- two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onion on a sesame seed bun. In 2004, Mickey D's celebrated the fortieth birthday of the iconic burger. The company sells an astonishing 560 million Big Macs each year, even though they're only available in 13,700 of the franchises [source: Friedman]. People love the Big Mac, some so much that it's become almost an obsession. A man in Fond Du Lac, Wis., claimed he ate two Big Macs a day, every day since 1972. That makes 21,292 Big Macs as of August 2004. And, how many trips to the cardiologist?
A survey asked diners what menu terms are most confusing. Learn more about this survey on hard-to-understand menus in this HowStuffWorks Now article.
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More Great Links
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