10 Great Food & Restaurant Franchises To Open In 2021
A lot of aspiring business owners ask themselves the question, “Should I buy a franchise?” at some point. A restaurant franchise is a turnkey business, and while the initial investment can be quite high, your parent company provides you with a proven method for success—as long as you have the time and money to get the wheels turning.
However, you have to be discerning when you choose which food franchise to buy into. Certain franchises are more popular and profitable than others, and you don’t want to choose a brand that’s behind-the-times or not performing as well as its peers. If you have the capital to purchase one of the top restaurant franchises on this list, you will have an excellent chance of success right off the bat. In this list, I’ve compiled some top-performing and up-and-coming food franchises that are excellent investment opportunities in 2020.
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< $500K Investment
1. Kona Ice
- Restaurant Type: Shaved-ice trucks
- Initial Investment: $123,150
- Number of Franchises: 1,000+
- Regions Served: All of United States, and some international
- Unique Benefits: Quick startup, low overhead, patented “Flavorwave” self-serve system
Kona Ice is a fast-growing food truck franchise that you have probably been seeing pop up lately at community events, concerts, sports games — you name it. With your first bite, it’s obvious that this Hawaiian-style shaved ice is not your typical “snow cone.” It’s more of a gourmet product that’s both delicious and health-conscious—flavors are vitamin-fortified and sweetened with all-natural stevia and pure cane sugar—making it a hit among kids and parents alike. Moreover, this franchise has very a low barrier to entry, only requiring a $20,000 cash deposit, which covers the franchise fee and a $5K deposit on your truck. Based on credit approval, Kona offers financing for the remaining portion of your truck. If you want to pay for everything outright, including your truck, franchise fee, and initial inventory pack, the total initial investment is $123,150.
Kona Ice, which currently ranks #67 on Entrepreneur Magazine’s Franchise 500 list, is looking for new franchisees across the United States and worldwide. Shaved ice carts, kiosks, and trailers are available. If you think you might be interested in starting a food truck business like Kona Ice, learn about the best financing options for food trucks.
2. Ben & Jerry’s
- Restaurant Type: Ice cream shop
- Initial Investment: $107,685–$429,300
- Number of Franchises: <1,000
- Regions Served: All of U.S. & Canada, Europe, Australia
- Unique Benefits: Globally recognized brand, relaxed liquidity & net worth requirements, fair & ethical corporate culture
Ben & Jerry’s is a classic ice cream brand synonymous with both quality and fun. Originally founded in 1978, the brand is still going strong today, ranking #80 on Entrepreneur’s Franchise 500. Customers have always been willing to pay a little more for Ben & Jerry’s premium frozen treats, with their inventive flavors, playful names, and quality ingredients. As is the case with many of today’s most popular franchise brands, Ben & Jerry’s exemplifies socially responsible, sustainable business practices. As such, the brand has a dedicated following and its franchisees stand to make a pretty profit, with a successful Scoop Shop owner easily taking home six figures a year.
Furthermore, Ben & Jerry’s locations aren’t too expensive to open—you can open a Ben & Jerry’s kiosk with an initial investment as low as $107,685—and the company is currently seeking new franchisees in almost every region of the U.S., as well as Australia. Ben & Jerry’s is especially interested in franchisees who are socially conscious and active in their community.
Ben & Jerry’s does not directly offer financing to franchisees, but as long as you have $100K in liquidity and a $350K net worth, the company has no problem with you obtaining a franchise loan from other sources. Depending on whether you are opening a new location or purchasing an existing Ben & Jerry’s, you might also be eligible for a business acquisition loan.
3. Maui Wowi
- Restaurant Type: Coffee/smoothie cart
- Initial Investment: $63,900-$554,000
- Number of Franchises: 450+
- Regions Served: Across the U.S., some international
- Unique Benefits: Low-cost, mobile business, veteran-friendly
Founded in 1982 and franchising since 1997, Maui Wowi Hawaiian Coffees & Smoothies offers mobile operating units, perfect for selling at events and venues such as arenas, sporting events, and concerts, or at a permanent site that has high foot-traffic. This franchise capitalizes on both the coffee industry and the smoothie industry, appealing to consumers looking for a healthy frozen treat or a caffeine fix at a large event, college campus, or busy downtown street corner. Maui Wowi has a place on both the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in the United States and Franchise Times’ Top 200 Franchise Systems.
Maui Wowi, currently looking to establish new franchises located anywhere in the U.S. or internationally, is also unique in that it offers veterans a 20% discount on the franchise fee (a total of $30K, and the ability to operate up to three mobile or fixed operating units). Ideal candidates have $30K in liquid assets and $100K net worth; the total initial investment starts at $63,900 for a mobile operating unit at events, or $94,850 for a permanent site. The company also offers optional in-house equipment financing and partners with third-party financing sources to help you come up with the rest of the money for the franchise fee, inventory, and other startup costs. If this franchise opportunity appeals to you because you are a veteran, you can also look into small business loans for veterans.
$500K – $2 Million Investment
4. Sonic Drive-Thru
- Restaurant Type: Drive-in/drive-thru fast food
- Initial Investment: $1,236,800-$3,536,300
- Number of Franchises: 3,600+
- Regions Served: All of the U.S.
- Unique benefits: One-of-a-kind “drive-in” experience, boasts the largest fast-food drink selection
Both iconic and trendy, Sonic has been a beloved drive-in/drive-thru fast-food brand since the 1950s, known for its yummy burgers, scrumptious shakes, and to-die-for cherry limeade. In recent decades, however, Sonic has reached new heights of success, embracing both nostalgia and forward-thinking technology. Customers order from and eat in their parked car, while friendly servers deliver orders on rollerskates. You could almost believe you’re in the 1950s—except you’re ordering and paying from a lit-up digital touchscreen POS.
QSR names Sonic as one of the top 50 quick-service and fast-casual restaurant brands, and Entrepreneur Magazine ranks Sonic #3 on its own (top 500) list. Sonic boasted an average net sales per-store of $1,265,000 in 2019, up from $1,072,000 in 2012, noting that the biggest portion of sales come from its endlessly customizable fountain drink selections. Sonic is currently looking for new franchisees throughout the United States, though you should be aware that they require the franchisee have a minimum net worth of $1 million, as well as liquid assets of at least $500K. For a standard Sonic drive-thru, the total initial investment can be as low as $1,236,800 (excluding land costs), though this amount could be lower for a non-traditional location such as inside a convenience store.
If you need a commercial real estate loan for your franchise endeavor, consider an SBA commercial real estate loan, which will likely secure you the best rates.
5. Dairy Queen
- Restaurant Type: Soft serve/fast food
- Initial Investment: $1,091,025-$1,849,525
- Number of Franchises: 6,800+
- Regions Served: U.S., Canada, and International
- Unique Benefits: Leverage a classic American brand dating back to 1940s with 95% consumer brand recognition (according to DQ)
Dairy Queen is a high-performing, time-tested brand that represents tradition and good times. Soft-serve never goes out of style, especially when you have proprietary treats you can’t get anywhere else, like the DQ Blizzard. Also, while most ice cream/soft serve chains stick exclusively to frozen dessert products, Dairy Queen has the distinction of offering hot food at their “Chill & Grill” locations. Fun fact: famously discerning investor Warren Buffet loves DQ so much that he bought the company in 1998.
DQ ranks #21 on Entrepreneur’s Franchise 500 list and is considered one of the higher-profit fast-food franchises. For owner-operated franchisee locations, the average annual profit is $194,000, while absentee-managed franchisee locations earn an average profit of $117K.
It will cost you at least a cool million to open your own DQ franchise, but unlike a lot of top franchises, single-unit domestic opportunities are available. Yes, the average initial investment is about $1.5 million. But franchisees only need liquid capital of $400K and net worth of $750K, which are more relaxed terms compared with some other top food franchise brands. Also, DQ does not require you to have prior restaurant management experience, as long as you hire someone (or partner with someone) who does.
6. MELT SHOP
- Restaurant Type: Elevated fast-casual
- Initial Investment: $426,946-$767,369
- Number of Franchises: <10 (with 25 new international locations in the works)
- Regions Served: U.S. and international
- Unique Benefits: Get in on the ground floor of an emerging franchise
Grilled cheese is back in a big way, in case you haven’t noticed, and MELT SHOP is part of the “upscale grilled cheese” trend currently manifesting in hip neighborhoods everywhere. New York-based MELT SHOP only recently started franchising, but some people are saying that this fast-casual chain could be the next Shake Shack or Chipotle (neither of which are currently franchising, unfortunately). MELT SHOP sells melted sandwiches and other comfort food, as well as salads, craft beer, and those trendy little wines in a can. All of these offerings are served in an elevated fast-casual dine-in experience, with delivery and take-out options. MELT SHOP’s fresh, high-quality ingredients and casual but aesthetically pleasing atmosphere appeals to families and hipsters alike.
MELT SHOP claims that it offers exemplary support and resources to interested franchisees, and though the six-year-old brand is not yet time-tested, it might be worth taking a chance on this up-and-coming opportunity. MELT SHOP estimates an average per-location annual sales range of $1,016,984–$1,640,406, which is not too shabby. The company is looking for franchisees who are experienced in developing multi-unit restaurants, though they may accept single-unit franchisees too. For a single-unit restaurant, the average initial investment is about $500K.
7. Panera Bread
- Restaurant Type: Bakery-café fast-casual
- Initial Investment: $942,200-$1,600,000 (per location, with 15 locations minimum)
- Number of Franchises: 2,000+
- Regions Served: All of U.S. and Canada
- Unique benefits: GMO-free, high-profit, meets consumer demand for healthy, socially responsible fast-casual
Panera Bread is a health-conscious bakery-cafe chain that has proliferated across America (and Canada) throughout the first two decades of the 2000s. The brand is known for its health-conscious food and socially responsible practices —think free-range eggs, a GMO-free menu, and community giving campaigns. If you can afford this franchise opportunity, you stand to make high profits—according to Forbes, the average Panera franchise takes home nearly $2.5 million a year.
Panera is a hot opportunity for seasoned restauranteurs who can develop multiple units; the brand is currently only interested in franchisees who will open at least 15 units over a period of 6 years. So, you’re looking at total initial investment of at least $15 million. You will also need to have a net worth of at least $7.5 million and $3 million in liquid cash to become a Panera franchisee. If you are interested in opening a Panera-style business but don’t meet those qualifications, you might think about starting your own coffee house.
8. Cook’s Tortas
- Restaurant Type: Mexican fast-casual
- Initial Investment: $260,500 to $711,500 (per unit; at least 5 units required)
- Number of Franchises: 0
- Regions Served: Currently just LA, but expanding to major U.S. markets nationwide
- Unique Benefits: Brand-new franchising opportunity could be the “next big thing” in Mexican fast-casual
LA-based Cook’s Tortas has been around since 2008, but it only recently announced that it will start franchising, in December 2019. However, there is already a lot of excitement building surrounding this Mexican fast-casual franchising opp. The menu, which centers on a popular Mexican sandwich called a torta, is both gourmet and authentic, in a Mexican food market that’s oversaturated with greasy tacos and Americanized “Tex-Mex.” Based on family recipes, Cook’s fresh sandwiches are also healthier than standard fast-food Mexican fare, and if the LA-based restaurant’s insane popularity is any indication, they’re super delicious too.
Yet another exciting thing about this new franchising opportunity is that Cook’s franchising partner is Fransmart, the same company behind the hugely successful Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Qdoba Mexican Eats. Fransmart says that Cook’s is poised to lead the fast-growing Mexican fast-casual market segment, and based on Fransmart’s fast food franchising experience—not to mention the long lines of loyal fans at Cook’s Tortas’ Monterey Park location—I’m inclined to believe them. LA already has a really big tortas scene, but most other big U.S. cities are relatively untapped markets.
Fransmart is currently seeking experienced multi-unit franchisees nationwide, with a net worth of $1 million and at least $500K in cash ready for investment. Potential franchisees need to commit to develop at least five locations in a “major U.S. area,” and be ready to start developing within 3-6 months. The good thing is that each unit can potentially cost as little as $260,500 to develop, so it may be possible to develop five units for an initial investment under $2 million.
9. Noodles & Co.
- Restaurant Type: American fast-casual noodles & pasta
- Initial Investment: $483,733-$1,198,107
- Number of Franchises: 450+ restaurants total, 67 franchised
- Regions Served: Currently seeking U.S. only
- Unique Benefits: Revamped brand in new franchise growth stage
Noodles & Co. is a fast-casual noodle and pasta chain which has had an interesting history and growth trajectory. The American eatery, founded by former Pepsi exec. Aaron Kennedy in 1995, operated mostly company-owned locations in the past but is now seeking franchisees as part of its new growth strategy. Current CEO Dave Boennighausen said in the company’s Q3 2019 review that Noodles is targeting 5-7% unit growth in 2021 and beyond, with a focus on new franchises in proven markets in the midwest and Colorado. The initial investment starts at a little under $500K for each new restaurant, and candidates should have a net worth of $3 million and at least $1.5 million in liquid cash. Noodles is currently seeking franchisees interested in developing at least three restaurants.
As for its history, Noodles experienced rapid growth in the first ten years of its existence, even going public with an IPO that reached nearly $50 in 2013. The company’s growth cooled down a lot from 2015 to 2017, and its stock is now worth a tenth of what it once was. Since 2017, Noodles has taken great strides to revamp the brand, trimming the fat by closing unsuccessful restaurants, revamping their menu by eliminating less-popular sandwiches, and adding exciting new offerings such as Caulifloodles—cauliflower-infused noodles whose idea is to more or less trick your kids into eating vegetables (and maybe yourself too). Noodles & Co. has also embraced online ordering, implemented a digital rewards program, and implemented a new kitchen design with smaller square footage. In other words, the brand found out what works for them and what doesn’t, and now they’re ready to franchise that concept. Are you game?
10. Darden Restaurants
- Restaurant Type: Full-service & fine dining
- Initial Investment: The Big Bucks
- Number of Franchises: 1,700+
- Regions Served: U.S. and international, but currently focused only on international markets
- Unique Benefits: Effective corporate leadership, be part of largest American full-service restaurant group
Darden is a large, multi-brand restaurant group that owns a number of popular restaurants, including Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Yard House, The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, Bahama Breeze, and Eddie V’s. Some of these restaurants are more on the casual sit-down side, while others can be considered fine dining. What they have in common is that they are almost universally high-performing in recent years, particularly since the company reorganized operations in 2014, adopting a franchise model and ditching Red Lobster from their lineup.
The bad news for most readers is that you will have to have very deep pockets to open an Olive Garden or another coveted Darden Restaurant—currently, they are only looking to partner with experienced, “well-capitalized” partners interested in opening 15+ restaurants in international territory. But if this happens by any chance to describe you, becoming a Darden franchisee could be an extremely lucrative opportunity. Darden is also open to “non-traditional, domestic franchise locations (e.g., airports, campuses, military bases)” and acquisition opportunities.
Restaurant franchise ownership can be a smart choice for driven individuals who want to purchase a turnkey business. Franchises don’t run themselves, but with your personal dedication and industry tools such as franchise management software, you can run your food franchise like a well-oiled machine.
If you’ve decided that you want to purchase a restaurant franchise, but don’t have the initial investment just yet, that’s okay. Many franchises will let you finance part of the purchase cost, whether through an in-house financing program for franchisees, or through a franchise loan you obtain from a bank or an online lender. There are also SBA loans for franchises, so be sure to check whichever franchise you’re interested in against the SBA franchise list to see if you’re eligible for SBA financing.