Burgers and fries may be all-American, but don’t underestimate the popularity of fried chicken restaurants.
Tender, juicy chicken with crispy skin, cooked to perfection, is a mouthwatering treat. In recent years, there’s even been a bit of a chicken-sandwich battle, with numerous restaurant chains offering up their take on the classic menu item.
Restaurant-industry magazine QSR put together a ranking of the most popular chicken restaurant chains, based on companywide annual sales in 2022. Not every chain is fully nationwide — depending on where you live, you may only be able to visit one or two of the listed restaurants.
Here are the top chains that specialize in fried chicken and a look at their fried chicken offerings.
Annual sales: $765 million
Church’s Chicken started out as a small shack across the street from San Antonio’s famous Alamo. The restaurant focuses on hand-battered, double-breaded original and spicy chicken, and bone-in chicken was the chain’s specialty for decades. But in 2020, the restaurant was a late entrant to the chicken-sandwich wars, introducing a chicken breast filet on a brioche bun topped with pickles and mayo.
Like it hot? In addition to a spicy version of the sandwich, Church’s sells side orders of jalapeño peppers, whose juice customers squeeze over their chicken to pump up the spice.
El Pollo Loco
Annual sales: $1.04 billion
What started as a shoe store in Los Angeles is now a burgeoning chicken empire, with nearly 500 stores in six Southwestern states. What makes the chicken “loco” — crazy — is founder Pancho Ochoa’s family recipe for citrus-marinated meat with garlic and spices, and an emphasis on “maximum freshness,” which “means maximum flavor.”
Annual sales: $1.6 billion
Bojangles locations are primarily in the U.S. Southeast, and the chain’s focus is Southern, too. Here, you can get Cajun-seasoned fried chicken with bold spicy flavors, plus sweet tea and flaky Southern biscuits. The fried chicken’s the focus, though. It’s never frozen, and it’s marinated for 12 hours before being hand-breaded. And if you’re afraid of the spicy Cajun seasoning, there’s a milder chicken option, too.
Annual sales: $2.38 billion
Zaxby’s may not be as well-known as some of the larger chicken chains, but it still earns plenty in annual sales at its more than 900 locations. Zaxby’s serves up fried chicken fingers, chicken wings and sandwiches, and if you like spicy dipping sauces, you’ve come to the right chain. Sauce offerings include Nuclear and Tongue Torch.
Annual sales: $2.38 billion
Launched in 1994 out of Garland, Texas, Wingstop has quickly grown to an international favorite with more than 2,000 restaurants. While they do offer a traditional chicken sandwich, their selling point is clearly the wings — which come in a dozen flavors requiring a custom heat scale. And if you’re not sure how many you’ll need for a meal, they’re happy to “run the numbers” with their very own Wing Calculator, which accounts for hunger level and party size.
Annual sales: $3.12 billion
If you don’t like your chicken in chicken-finger form, Raising Cane’s isn’t for you. All the chicken on their menu is served in those long, crispy strips known as chicken fingers. Even Raising Cane’s chicken sandwich is made with chicken fingers, not a fat breast filet, as served at most chains.
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
Annual sales: $5 billion
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, founded in 1972 in New Orleans, wasn’t named after the muscle-bound sailor man, but after Popeye Doyle, a character in “The French Connection” movie. And Popeyes is the chain that CNN credits with sparking the latest chicken-sandwich war among restaurants.
In 2019, the company introduced a buttermilk-battered, breaded chicken filet sandwich on a toasted brioche bun, topped with pickles and the customer’s choice of mayo or spicy Cajun spread. It sold out in less than two weeks and has been a hot item ever since, with other chicken chains clucking to catch up.
Annual sales: $5.1 billion
KFC, still known to some by its original name of Kentucky Fried Chicken, needs no introduction to many Americans. It has more than 24,000 locations worldwide. Founder Harland Sanders’ recipe, using 11 herbs and spices, is a trade secret many have tried to copy. Its fried chicken is served with either original recipe or extra-crispy breading, and pressure-cooked to seal in flavor.
Annual sales: $18.8 billion
Chick-fil-A may not be thought of by some as a fried chicken place, but half of its entree menu items involve fried chicken. Sure, the chain’s site describes those menu items as “pressure-cooked,” but that pressure-cooking is happening in a fryer. The chain is known for its classic chicken sandwich, its chicken nuggets and its many sauces — as well as for its policy of being closed on Sundays.