When it comes to burger chains, the difference between regional and national brands can be hard to define. While favorites like In-N-Out and Culvers have only a fraction of, say, the number of national McDonald’s stores, they still rank among the top 14 burger chains by sales. As countless regional brands have proven over the years, “regionality” is by no means an obstacle to financial success and popularity with customers. Additionally, these smaller regional chains may end up serving higher quality food with access to locally sourced ingredients.
In fact, of the top 14 hamburger chains by sales in 2021, nearly half were chains operating fewer than a thousand stores (several of which had over a billion in sales). With such a crowded market, it’s worth taking stock of which regional chains are most popular with customers and taking a look at where they source their ingredients. Here is an overview six smaller-scale burger chains serving the highest quality food.
A longtime neighborhood favorite throughout Oregon and southwestern Washington, Burgerville has been “serving fresh food made with local ingredients” since 1961, according to the company’s website. Specializing in high-quality burgers and old-school classics like savory fries and simple milkshakes, the chain continues to appeal to loyal fans as well as passing travelers looking for the perfect pit stop.
Burgerville advertises its use of antibiotic-free beef from cattle raised in the Pacific Northwest. Plus, the chain’s pork, turkey, and chicken are also all antibiotic-free. All food items used on the menu are specifically presented when in season and at their peak. Plus, all of Burgerville’s milkshakes and sundaes are made with homemade ice cream sourced from local businesses and/or area farms from each of the 40+ locations.
Washington state burger lovers rave about Dick’s Drive-in, and not just for its affordable prices and review-worthy customer service. The chain uses 100% real beef, delivered fresh daily and never frozen in all of its simplistic menu items.
Dick’s Drive-in has just eight locations in the West, and for the past 60 years, frequent patrons have vouched for deluxe cheeseburgers, hand-cut fries, and hand-dipped milkshakes. It was also ranked #1 in USA today Best Annual Regional Fast Food for 2022.
Famous for its signature ButterBurger, made with fresh never-frozen beef, the Wisconsin-based chain has been in the top burger business for nearly 40 years, having first set up shop in 1984. In terms of sales, Culver’s ranked among the top 25 U.S. fast food chains in 2021, achieving over $1.9 billion in sales with a footprint of just 782 stores. The chain’s restaurants are spread across 26 states but are concentrated in Wisconsin, on the western shore of Lake Michigan.
Culver is ranked in the top five in 2022 USA today Best Regional Fast Food List and received rave reviews from Initiated Frank Olito (who called the chain’s burgers “the best burger I’ve ever had”) as well as celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, who recently named Culver’s as his go-to fast food for road trips. The chain also has a loyal following on Twitter, with fans fighting for Culver’s as “[the] In-N-Out of the Midwest only better.”
Founded in 1950, the Texas chain is beloved for its eponymous item, a burger “so big it [takes] two hands to hold.” Like Culver’s, Whataburger punches above its weight in terms of sales: in 2020, the chain raked in more than $2.7 billion with a footprint of just 844 stores. Most of Whataburgers is located in Texas , but the chain’s footprint already spans 14 states and will continue to expand in the years to come.
A leading regional burger chain, Whataburger is regularly pitted against California chain In-N-Out in terms of quality. The comparison of channels is endless on Twitter. Hoping to settle the matter, Business Intern conducted a side-by-side test in 2019 and ruled in favor of In-N-Out. Whataburger won the popular vote the same year, however, in a survey conducted by USA today.
Cook Out debuted in 1989 and currently has 313 stores across ten states. Founded in North Carolina, the burger and barbecue chain is primarily focused in the Southeast.
Above all, Cook Out prides itself on the freshness of its ingredients. Similar to In-N-Out, the chain has its own meat commissioner (founded in 1999), which supplies its stores with never-frozen, ground, delivered and cooked fresh beef daily.
Tasting table ranked Cook Out alongside In-N-Out and Shake Shack, calling the chain’s burgers “essentially like eating a burger off the grill in your backyard”.
A small Alabama burger chain (with a current footprint of just 24 stores), Milo’s Hamburgers originated in 1946 in Birmingham, founded by Milo Carlton, a former US Army mess cook. During the restaurant’s first summer of operation, Carlton invented and perfected “Milo’s Famous Sauce”, taking into account customer feedback and finding the perfect balance between sweetness and spiciness.
Today, Milo’s is beloved for its flagship burger (which is “dipped” in the famous sauce), as well as its three-ingredient sweet tea, which is so popular that the chain runs a separate business that bottles the tea and supplies to retailers. .
A staple of Alabama cuisine, Milo’s was named one of the “100 Foods to Eat in Alabama Before You Die” in 2019 by the Alabama Department of Tourism.
If you pass by one of these regional burger chains, don’t skip them! Get your fast food fix at one of these places with the highest quality ingredients.
A previous version of this article was originally published on September 11, 2022. It has been updated with new information.
Jordan Summers-Marcouillier was born and raised in San Jose, CA and now works as a writer in New York, NY. Learn more about Jordan
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