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The Country’s Most Popular Roadside Chains

Some might surprise you

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Road trips can be a great time to try local or destination restaurants — the kind that offer cheap, filling meals that don’t detract too much from time spent on the road. But as it turns out, the most popular road trip dining destination is one of the country’s most popular destinations, period: Starbucks.

According to data collected within the past year by Foursquare and Swarm (Foursquare’s check-in app), Starbucks tops the list of most popular stops during a road trip. Most of the others on the list are pretty unsurprising, with a couple of exceptions. Tim Horton’s, for instance, took third place — interesting, considering it’s a Canadian chain (though it does have more than 1,000 U.S. locations).

From France's Michelin Guide to America's AAA magazines, automobile and affiliated industries have made a business out of encouraging drivers to stop at places considered "worth a detour" or "worth a special journey." These are often unique, worthwhile, and otherwise out-of-the-way eats that have a sense of place and are overseen by skilled chefs. But the average American diner and driver's tastes has never matched Michelin's.

The original restaurant, which historian Rebecca L. Spang traces back to 18th century France, was a roadside stop serving restorative broths. Fast forward to 1950s America: Around the same time President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956Howard Johnson's seized the niche of the rest stop diner. Ever since roadside chain restaurants have dotted freeways across the country.

Foursquare's data, provided exclusively to Eater, proves that by and large, Americans favor chain restaurant destinations while road-tripping East to West and North to South. Starbucks and McDonald's are at the top while Burger King, Popeyes, and Dairy Queen are moderately popular. At the end of the list find pretzel pusher Auntie Anne’s and Cinnabon, two chains better known for their locations inside shopping malls.

Below, the full list of most popular roadside chains in the U.S., according to Foursquare:

  1. Starbucks
  2. McDonald's
  3. Tim Hortons
  4. Dunkin' Donuts
  5. Burger King
  6. Popeyes
  7. Dairy Queen
  8. Auntie Anne's
  9. Cinnabon
  10. Subway

The list aligns fairly closely with QSR Magazine’s Top 10 most popular fast-food restaurants, in terms of overall sales. McDonald’s is the highest-grossing, with some $35 million in annual sales in 2014. Interestingly, though, some of the most profitable chains — Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, don’t make the roadside list.

Though a Foursquare rep says the company can’t share the exact number of check-ins each chain saw, they noted that "Tim Hortons, Dunkin Donuts, and Burger King see about the same number of check-ins and visits." McDonald's averages about twice that amount, while Starbucks visits are more than twice those of McDonald’s. Maybe it's not so surprising that Starbucks is at the top. After all, caffeine is a key ingredient on long, meandering drives through the countryside.

All Chain Coverage [E]