Wendy's ranked as the nations fourth-largest eatery chain last year,… (Reed Saxon, AP )
The restaurant industry's royal line of succession has shifted, with Wendy's usurping Burger King as the second-largest burger chain, in sales, behind McDonald's.
In its annual ranking of U.S. restaurants, research group Technomic placed McDonald's — with its 5.5% boost in sales in 2011 to $34.2 billion — first among the nation's 500 largest eatery chains.
Next came two non-burger chains: Subway and Starbucks, each of which posted a 7.5% sales gain.
Wendy's placed fourth, with $8.5 billion in sales, followed by Burger King's $8.4 billion.
But Burger King's restaurant count still far outstrips Wendy's, making Wendy's move up the ladder more significant.
Both companies have undergone identity crises in recent years, with product revamps, management shuffles and marketing shake-ups.
Overall, Technomic said restaurant chain sales amounted to $242 billion in 2011. Technomic's figures account for sales from company-owned and franchised establishments, but don't reflect corporate revenue.
Sales rose 3.4% in 2011 — a pickup from the 1.8% increase in 2010.
International markets were more favorable for U.S. companies, with sales abroad up 6.4%. Food service companies such as Yum Brands, which owns KFC and Taco Bell, have recently pushed heavily into countries such as China, where a growing base of customers hungers for American-style fast food.
Limited-service chains, which include fast-food and fast-casual eateries, enjoyed a 3.7% sales bump. The latter category had a blockbuster performance, with Panera Bread Co. clocking a 10.1% boost, Chipotle Mexican Grill soaring 23.4%, and Five Guys Burgers and Fries — the fastest-growing chain — seeing a 32.8% improvement.
Full-service restaurants had a more mellow year, with a 2.8% increase in sales after a flat 2010. Seafood and steak eateries were the most robust overall, with Red Lobster's sales jumping 6.2% and LongHorn Steakhouses' figures up 13.1%.
Among the food choices surging in popularity were chicken wings. Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar and Wingstop both earned spots among the 10 fastest-growing chains. According to Technomic, 36% of chain restaurants now offer wings.
Other companies on the list of fast growers include Yard House, Firehouse Subs, BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse and Noodles & Co.