COVID-19 is not yet done with the restaurant industry. Two years after the start of the pandemic, many American restaurant chains continue to struggle, faced with decrease of sales on the one hand and the rapid evolution of consumer behavior on the other. Chains that have avoided bankruptcy so far have done so at great expense, dumping dozens of restaurants — and in some cases, hundreds — in order to stay afloat.
Legacy brands from the 80s and 90s have been particularly hard hit in recent years, with once-massive chains like Ruby Tuesday and Boston Market suffering massive losses and shrinking to a few hundred locations each. Meanwhile, buffet-style restaurants like Ponderosa and Golden Corral have had their moment of judgment, prompted by the pandemic to reconsider a business model that may no longer be tenable.
Here are eight American restaurant chains that are shrinking right now.
For more fast food news, see 8 worst fast food burgers to avoid right now.
Ruby Tuesday made it through the pandemic, but barely. Like many other fast food chains for decades, Ruby Tuesday was pushed into bankruptcy, seeking Chapter 11 protection in end of 2020. Debt protection was granted in February 2021, but the chain emerged from bankruptcy court a ghost of itself, with its number of restaurants more than halved, from 451 to 209.
The Boston market has been in the news lately, following last year’s announcement ambitious expansion plans and the launch of a new take-out restaurant design. But the regional favorite has been in freefall for two decades, following a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 1998.
Since then, Boston Market has passed through the hands of no less than three different parent companies and has seen its number of restaurants steadily decline, from a high of 1,200 units in 1998 to a all-time low of 326 last year.
But even America’s No. 1 buffet restaurant couldn’t beat the pandemic. Since 2018, Golden Corral’s footprint has shrunk by more than 25%, with most losses occurring in the past two years. Last month, the buffet chain reported a systemwide total of 360 restaurants, with 80 restaurants lost in pandemic-related closures.
Despite its significantly reduced footprint, Golden Corral is always planning a comeback, with plans for a new line of restaurants with a streamlined and, wait for it, takeout-friendly store design.
Beloved steakhouses Ponderosa and Bonanza (whose names were inspired by the 60s western show Bonanza) were acquired by FAT Brands in 2017, after decades of ownership by conglomerate Metromedia Restaurant Group and a filing of balance sheet in 2008.
While the sister brands have found some sort of sanctuary in the FAT brands, they show no signs of recovery after their years of decline. Their current number of collective restaurants adds up to just 23 slots, down from 75 in 2019.
Founded in 1934, Steak ‘n Shake is another decades-old fast food brand with an uncertain future. Passed from one parent company to another, Steak ‘n Shake experienced something of a resurgence in the late 2000s, under the leadership of entrepreneur Sardar Biglari. Unfortunately, that momentum was short-lived, starting to wane 2016.
In the years since, the company has regularly made headlines with its erratic finances, announcing a cut-sale of hundreds of its restaurants in 2018, and narrowly avoid bankruptcy in early 2021. During all this time, its number of stores has steadily decreased, from 423 restaurants in 2008 to only 306 in 2020.
One of the biggest stories of the decline of quick service chains, the number of Quiznos stores fell by one amazing 94% over the past 15 years. The sandwich chain hit its peak in 2006, with 5,000 units to its name. Since then, its footprint has (approximately) halved every five years: it fell to 2,800 units in 2010, 671 units in 2016 and 255 last year.
The sandwich brand hopes to find new sales through a partnership with ghost kitchen company Ghost Kitchen Brands, which in 2021 announced plans to bring Quiznos to 100 of its stores, in the United States and Canada.
Despite the liquidation of its parent company Luby’s in 2020, beloved burger chain Fuddruckers continues to hobble, acquired for $18.5 million by Black Titan Franchise Systems in late 2021. But Black Titan will have its work cut out trying to rehabilitate Fuddruckers.
The brand has been in steady decline since at least 2010, when it was acquired by Luby’s. Its number of stores has halved over the past decade, from 198 stores in 2010 just 92 last year.