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The 8 Most Popular (and Profitable) Restaurant Types

Your restaurant type influences everything about your business. Find out which restaurant genres are most popular with customers and profitable for your bottom line.

7 min read
3/24/2022
5 Most Popular Restaurants

Preparing to open a new restaurant can be an exciting time for an entrepreneur. But it’s important to think through your business strategy with an eye towards profits — as well as the latest consumer preferences. 

Which types of restaurants will get noticed, exactly? Honing in on concepts for the most successful restaurant types requires thinking strategically and answering some big questions. With many types of restaurants and cuisines to choose from, which establishments are most successful? 

An analysis can help you narrow down things like your price point, staffing plan, and more, as you develop your business plan. With many different types of restaurants — from family-style eateries to food trucks — some are clear crowd favorites.

To simplify things, we’ll highlight 8 types of restaurants that are the most popular — and profitable — and share why customers can't get enough of them.

Which types of restaurants are both popular and profitable?

1. QSR / Fast food restaurants

quick service restaurants

Fast food, or quick service restaurant (QSR) establishments, serve food packaged to be eaten on the go, whether from a drive-through window or counter. Customers may also dine in, although it’s less common. These types of restaurants are often well-known chains or franchises with a nationwide or even global presence. Menus are made up of standardized fare — think juicy double-patty burgers, fried chicken, and crispy fries — and typically feature lower price points, making them accessible for a breadth of customers.

Why they’re popular:

Fast food is convenient and easy on the wallet — perfect for today’s busy consumer. The menu items can be eaten in a car, on a train, while walking — or pretty much anywhere. Fast food evokes nostalgia for many people, and can bring up memories of special childhood moments, like family road trips and after-school treats. In addition, many large chains have a global presence, providing a familiar comfort for travelers far from home. According to our 2022 Restaurant Online Ordering Trends report, fast food items appear in the top 3 types of food ordered in the U.S.  

Why they’re profitable:

With the average profit margin for QSR restaurants running between 6-9%, this type of restaurant turns profits more easily than all the rest. With a limited set of ingredients, it’s easy for fast food restaurateurs to keep costs down. With much of the food prep done in advance, labor costs are low as well. Many of the profits come from upselling pricier items on the side (i.e. “Would you like fries with that?”) Soft drink sales are another boost to profit margins.

2. Casual dining restaurants

fast casual restaurants

Casual dining establishments encompass a large segment of the restaurant industry. These types of restaurants range from local independent spots to larger franchises. Defining characteristics include table service and a sit-down meal. Seating is generally oversized and comfortable. There’s generally a theme, specific decor, and ambiance that make the dining experience stand out. Depending on the cuisine, a customer dining at a casual establishment could find nearly anything: a salad bar, spaghetti and meatballs, Pad Thai, or even all-day breakfast staples, like pancakes and waffles.

Why they’re popular:

Casual dining customers can still get a relatively quick meal, but they’re able to sit down and enjoy table service. There are casual establishments in nearly every area that meet the needs of a weeknight meal or a more special occasion. Nearly all cuisines are suited to this type of restaurant, so customers are sure to find a casual dining spot that satisfies their cravings.

Why they’re profitable:

With higher price points than fast food restaurants, casual dining establishments can make more money per dish sold. Because casual dining restaurants are more of a destination for special occasions, restaurateurs can bank on customers spending more on drinks and desserts, driving profits higher. (To learn how one casual dining restaurant transformed its business, see how Smokey Bones drove 288% growth with delivery).

3. Fast casual restaurants

casual dining restaurants

Fast casual restaurants are a hybrid of fast food and casual dining, a new category that experts predict to be poised for strong continued growth over time. They offer a more upscale and diverse (though still limited) menu selection with slightly higher price points than fast food establishments. But similar to fast food, these types of restaurants have a counter service model where customers place their orders at the cashier and bring them back to their own table. Think customized chopped salads, signature paninis, superfood-filled smoothie bowls, or higher-quality burgers and shakes. 

Why they’re popular:

The fast casual restaurant scene is booming — from farm-fresh salad joints catering to busy work lunches to modern takes on Indian cuisines. Customers love the feel-good effect of being able to get a quality, flavorful meal — even when they’re short on time. The variety, moderate price points, convenience, and often healthier fare make these restaurants increasingly popular.

Why they’re profitable:

Like fast food, much of the meal preparation can be done in advance, reducing labor costs for fast casual operators. The bulk of the traffic comes from the lunch rush — with predictable busy and slow times, which are easier to staff. Learn more about how to grow restaurant lunch sales.

4. Contemporary casual restaurants

contemporary casual restaurants

Contemporary casual, a relatively new type of restaurant, is a sit-down dining experience marked by an emphasis on the atmosphere and experience. These types of restaurants often balance a relaxed eating environment with culinary trends popular with today’s consumers, like sustainability, farm-to-table, fusion cuisine, and craft beverages.

Why they’re popular:

Contemporary casual restaurants are ahead of the curve on food trends and social media strategies (think of the highly-Instagrammed wine bar in your neighborhood) — and as a result, these eateries attract younger Gen-Z and Millennial diners in droves. Many contemporary casual types of restaurants are known for mastering a specific meal — for instance, they may have a brunch so deliciously popular, there are lines down the block. 

Why they’re profitable:

Because they’re trendy among the younger generation, these types of restaurants can gain popularity quickly for a signature dish that everyone loves. Savvy restaurateurs can gain a reputation for a "hot" dish like a Mexican Taco Salad or homemade Ginger Beer with an eye on ensuring profitability. 

5. Cafés

cafe or coffee shop

A café is — at its simplest — a beverage-focused establishment. Offerings usually include coffee, tea, and a smaller menu of food or snacks. These types of restaurants typically offer counter service and prices are low to moderate. Every country has different traditions for enjoying their caffeinated brews — in the United States, for instance, coffee is often consumed on the go in infamously large cups. But around the world, many cultures sit and sip for hours. Australian café-goers love a flat white (similar to a latté); Italians love pure espresso; and the French might reach for a café au lait — and use it as a vessel for dipping croissants.

Why they’re popular:

Cafés serve many needs: They can be a social meeting place, a mobile office, a leisure spot, or somewhere convenient to grab a matcha latté or a quick bite. The options for these types of restaurants are endless, and customers can get a hot or cold caffeinated beverage crafted perfectly to their taste preferences. And in any country, coffee and tea are a common language.

Why they’re profitable:

Because they rely on mostly beverage sales, the profits in cafés can run a bit higher than in other types of restaurants where extensive food preparation costs can add up. Staffing a café doesn’t require quite as many employees, and decor is usually minimal.

6. Pizzerias

Pizzerias

Pizza first became popular in the United States as large numbers of Italian immigrants arrived at the end of the 19th century, setting up bakeries in large cities. Lombardi’s Pizza, founded in 1905, is credited as the first pizzeria in the United States — with many more to follow over the coming years.

Why they’re popular:

Try to think of a single town that doesn’t have at least a handful of pizzerias. It’s not easy. Everyone likes pizza — college students, busy moms and dads with young kids, working people on their lunch break. Pizza is a good choice for meeting a group of friends, and if you’re dining solo, it also makes great leftovers.

Why they’re profitable:

There’s good money to be made, with pizza restaurants in the U.S. generating over 45 billion in revenue in 2021. The main reason for the profitability of pizzerias is the low cost of their ingredients: water, flour, yeast, sauce, cheese, and a smattering of toppings. The assembly line for making a pizza is pretty straightforward, making it a predictable operation primed for high output for delivery and pickup orders. To read a pizzeria success story, see how Westside Pizza grew sales with DoorDash Self-Delivery.

7. Pop-up restaurants

pop up restaurant

What makes pop-up restaurants unique is their temporary nature. Pop-ups can appear in an old warehouse, in a giant tent, or in another restaurant altogether. A pop-up might last one night only, or it might last a whole season.  

Why they’re popular:

Pop-ups started to trend a few years ago, buoyed in part by the popularity of mobile restaurants, like Los Angeles’ ubiquitous taco trucks. Consumers were drawn in by the novelty and the emphasis on the experience of a meal. Chefs were drawn to the pop-up model as it allowed them to explore new dishes, flavors, and formats. 

Why they’re profitable:

Because of their temporary nature, pop-ups have fewer of the regular expenses that traditional restaurants have — such as rent or expensive equipment. Restaurateurs can keep costs down simply because they’re not running a full restaurant operation. For more on pop ups, see our Quick Guide to Starting a Pop-Up Restaurant.

8. Ghost kitchens 

ghost kitchens

Ghost kitchens — or virtual restaurants — are a newer type of restaurant that doesn’t have a storefront at all. Orders are placed by phone or online and are delivery-only. There’s no dining room, no host stand, no welcoming bar area. Often, there’s not even a sign out front.

Why they’re popular:

Consumers are drawn to the lower prices and convenient locations of a virtual restaurant. With the explosion of food delivery, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, ghost kitchens helped consumers get the tasty meals they’d grown to love from their local restaurants.

Why they’re profitable:

Because they often consist of little more than a bustling kitchen and a handful of delivery drivers, ghost kitchens have lower costs associated with their operations and can become profitable more quickly than a traditional type of restaurant. Restaurants based in the United States may want to consider a virtual restaurant business expansion with DoorDash. 

Open new concepts with popular restaurant types in mind

These eight types of restaurants are merely a snapshot of the extensive varieties across the industry. If you are a restaurateur with a concept in mind, even if it doesn’t fit within the most popular types, it’s worth pursuing. With a strong business plan and tasty cuisine, any restaurant can stand apart from competitors and draw in loyal customers.

DoorDash is here to support restaurateurs. With tools like the Business Manager App and Merchant Portal, managers can keep an eye on all the important metrics of their business, from any location. For tips on building a financial roadmap for your restaurant — and getting to profitability quickly — download our guide: Financing Your Restaurant and Projecting Profits.

Author

Andrew McCarthy

Andrew McCarthy

Content Lead

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