Is Chik-Fil-A Really The Most Popular Fast Food Restaurant? Not So Fast

Senior Contributor
10.19.17 19 Comments


Americans love fast food, and, more than any other food, they have strong opinions on it. So, Business Insider was going to pick a fight no matter what when they decided to find the most popular fast food chain in every state. But their results have us asking a few questions.

The map, posted on Twitter, speaks for itself:

Immediately, suspicions were raised:

And yes, this map is more than a little suspicious. Pennsylvanians prefer Chik-Fil-A to Wawa? Raising Cane’s is more popular in California than its home state of Louisiana? Starbucks can’t even win Washington? Something’s off here.

First of all, it’s based off Foursquare data. And while Foursquare is a fairly popular social network, it’s still only roughly 50 to 60 million users. So, at absolute best, 20% of the American population. Furthermore, using an app means to some degree you’re using a “self-selected” population; that is, people who not only download Foursquare, but actively use it to “check in” to locations.

Secondly, the methodology isn’t terribly complex:

For the study, we looked at which chains received the most visits on average in every state based on the total number of visits to each chain divided by the number of locations in that state.

So, not only is the study’s test sample incomplete, it’s also front-loaded in a number of ways. Chik-Fil-A has about 2000 restaurants, which doesn’t make it a small fish, but McDonald’s alone has over 14,000 locations in the US. As BI notes, Chik-Fil-A makes a lot of money at each of those locations, but that article itself proves the methodology is wonky. The chart insists that Texans prefer In-N-Out to Whataburger. But according to their own article on Chik-Fil-A’s success, Whataburger is second in per-franchise sales, with $2.7 million per franchise and there are nearly 700 Whataburgers in Texas. There are precisely 35 In-N-Outs.

So either In-N-Outs have a revolving door in the Lone Star State, or, far more likely, people are pulling out their phones to note that they’ve been to an In-N-Out. Familiarity, as the saying goes, breeds contempt. It’s not a coincidence if you look at this map, that cult fast-food joints dominate it. This isn’t a map of popularity so much as it traces bragging rights.

In other words, it’s not that Chik-Fil-A is the most popular, so much as people are willing to go out of their way to eat there, and willing to tell their friends. And even then, people, you can probably do better.

(via Business Insider)

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