8 fast-food chains that are thriving during the pandemic

A Chick-fil-A employee delivering food to a drive-thru customer. Chick-fil-A

The coronavirus pandemic posed many challenges to the fast-food industry, but some chains are performing better than expected.

Some chains have relied on drive-thru service, new menu items, and customer loyalty to pull in sales, and many have been successful in their efforts.

Here are eight fast-food chains that are thriving in the pandemic.

McDonald’s leaped into action at the start of the pandemic and pivoted to a limited menu featuring its most popular and high-performing items.

McDonald’s Big Mac. Irene Jiang / Business Insider

In March, McDonald’s immediately began limiting its menu to items the chain is known for. The chain removed items like salads and All Day Breakfast in order to streamline operations for its employees. Though many items have yet to return to menus, that hasn’t hindered the chain’s success during the pandemic.

McDonald’s reported that same-store sales increased 4.6% in the third quarter of last year, which ended on September 30, CNBC reported. McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski credited the chain’s success despite the pandemic with the company’s “unrivalled drive-thru presence around the world, advanced delivery and digital capabilities, and marketing scale,” Restaurant Business Online reported.

Kempczinski also cited the chain’s “promotional activity” for the increased same-store sales. The chain introduced a number of new menu items, including spicy chicken nuggets and a number of celebrity collaborations, such as with Travis Scott, to pull in customers.

Chick-fil-A’s steadfast customer loyalty and innovations during the pandemic has allowed the chain to thrive.

A Chick-fil-A employee delivering food to a drive-thru customer. Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A heavily focused on drive-thru, mobile ordering, and contactless payments during the pandemic. It introduced health-and-safety precautions like handwashing stations and Purell wipes for employees during the pandemic, while keeping its drive-thru lanes “full just like it always does,” according to QSR Magazine.

“No major quick serve has loyalty like Chick-fil-A,” wrote QSR Magazine in its ranking of the 50 biggest quick-service brands in America, which placed Chick-fil-A in the third spot.

Taco Bell’s drive-thru sales have been through the roof. The chain is serving customers even faster than before the pandemic.

A Taco Bell employee delivers an order to a customer at the drive-thru window. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The drive-thru lane has become instrumental in the success of fast-food chains during the pandemic, and Taco Bell is no exception. According to Restaurant Business, Taco Bell served 30 million more cars in the third quarter than they did the previous year – each order was also completed 17 seconds faster.

Taco Bell’s parent company, Yum! Brands, reported that in the third quarter, Taco Bell had a 3% increase in same-store sales.

KFC has also seen an increase in same-store and drive-thru sales.

KFC fried chicken. Patcharaporn Puttipon 636/Shutterstock

The chicken chain, which saw success largely due to its family-oriented bucket meals, saw same-store sales rise 9%. Drive-thru sales also increased 60% in the third quarter, compared to the previous year, Biz Journals reported.

Jack in the Box is in talks to expand its business after promising same-store sales in 2020.

Jack in the Box restaurant. Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock

According to Restaurant Business, Jack in the Box same-store sales rose 12.2% in the fast-food company’s third quarter, which ended September 27. The chain has also settled a dispute with its franchisees, an issue for growth that CEO Darin Harris addressed in a call with investors.

“The franchise lawsuit has been resolved,” Harris said, according to Restaurant Business. “It clears the past for our existing franchisees to grow, and they have expressed that desire to grow. And in some of the surveys we’ve completed, two-thirds of them have raised their hand saying, ‘We want to grow.'”

Popeyes’ same-store sales also rose almost 20%, due in part to its popular chicken sandwich.

Popeyes chicken sandwich. Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Popeyes’ famous chicken sandwich was released back in 2019, and the highly popular menu item has proven successful for the chain ever since. In May, it was also reported that sales had risen 40%, showing that customers keep going back for more.

According to Restaurant Business, same-store sales at Popeyes continued to grow 19.7% in the third quarter compared to the previous year.

Wendy’s same-store sales rose 7% in the company’s third quarter last year.

Wendy’s fast food restaurant drive-thru. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

According to Restaurant Business, Wendy’s same-store sales rose 7% in the company’s third quarter, with the chain’s new breakfast rollout accounting for 7% of all sales.

“In the face of the pandemic, with mobility being down, we’re very happy with how our breakfast business has been performing,” Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor said during a third quarter earnings call. “We’re feeling very bullish on the future of breakfast.”

However, despite Wendy’s promising numbers, breakfast continued to be a sore spot for fast-food chains. According to reporting by Insider’s Kate Taylor, breakfast sales at McDonald’s, Starbucks, Dunkin’, and other chains are down, even as sales throughout the rest of the day have improved.

Del Taco reported promising sales while announcing the chain will redesign its restaurants to be more drive-thru-friendly.

Del Taco sign. Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

On January 12, Del Taco reported a system-wide comparable restaurant sales increase of 3.8% during the fourth quarter.

“We are proud of our restaurant teams, franchisees, and support centre staff for providing our guests great food, great value, and great experiences that drove fiscal 2020 overall satisfaction scores to record levels while navigating a challenging pandemic related operating environment,” John D. Cappasola, Jr., the president and CEO of Del Taco, said in a press release.

The chain also announced its new “Fresh Flex” restaurant prototype featuring third-party delivery order pick-up stations, double drive-thru lanes dedicated to mobile orders, and expanded parking spaces for people to eat their food, according to QSR Magazine.

“Unfortunately the pandemic has created a lot of shakeout in the industry,” Jeff Little, senior vice president of development at Del Taco, told QSR. “But we see it as an opportunity for Del Taco franchisees to take advantage of newly available real estate… Fresh Flex lets us scale the kitchen and the dining room to meet the needs of almost any location.”

The first Del Taco Fresh Flex restaurant is set to open in Orlando in summer 2021.