10 Fast Food Restaurants That Haven't Made It Out Of America Yet

Since the 20th century, America has been one of the greatest exporters of culture, from fashion to music, and from movies to television. The same is true when it comes to food, where nothing is perhaps more classic American (or tasty) than a magnificent hamburger, hot dog, fried chicken, sandwich, french fries, milkshake, soda, and perhaps a little more recently, U.S. spins and twists on Mexican and Asian dishes.

Big chain restaurants like McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Domino's, Subway, Taco Bell, and Chipotle have been more than happy to let the rest of the world have a bite of what they have to offer. But a handful of American fast food icons have yet to make an international leap, with some in the fast casual industry concentrating instead on expansion in the United States — rather than to members of the United Nations. Let's examine 10 fast food restaurants that haven't made it out of America just yet. The rest of the world is seriously missing out.

1. Cava

Commonly described as a "Mediterranean Chipotle," Cava is a fast casual restaurant that grew out of a successful sit down restaurant called Cava Mezze in Rockville, Maryland. The original spot was co-founded in 2006 by childhood friends Ike Grigoropoulos, chef Dimitri Moshovitis, and Ted Xenohristos. After a successful first few years, the first rebranded Cava restaurant opened in 2011, and the company has grown from there. 

By 2015, Cava opened in Los Angeles, and saw its popular prepared foods and dips land on the shelves of Whole Foods. Three years later it expanded its reach by acquiring Zöes Kitchen, an Alabama-born, like-minded spot, with a foothold (and real estate) in the southern U.S. Cava has since converted some Zöes Kitchens into its own brand.

While none of those markets are international ... yet, it's only a matter of time before hungry mouths in new territories get in on what some have dubbed "NYC's hottest club." Fast food has changed a lot over the years, with people now craving more healthy fare, such as that on offer at Cava.

2. Checkers / Rally's

Rally's began flipping burgers in 1985 in Louisville, Kentucky, thanks to Jim Patterson, and then branched out in the southeastern part of America. A year later, Checkers got into the game in Mobile, Alabama, and grew in the midwest. The two companies had similar modus operandi — focusing on double drive-thrus. It was perhaps only natural the two would become one when Checkers acquired Rally's in 1999.

The untold truth about Rally's and Checkers is that, since Rally's was a well known name, Checkers let it remain after the merger, and moved forward with identical menus hawking the Big Bufords and Baconzillas. Vice president of development, Kris McDonald, told Nation's Restaurant News, "We have so much room to grow and so much potential. We're in about 30 states now and still have a lot of room to grow in the markets we're in." 

To date, Rally's has 308 locations, mainly in the midwest and west, to Checkers' 568, with almost a quarter of them in Florida, one of which is owned by Rick Ross. Maybe if the company considers expanding to New Mexico, Mexico could be close behind, too?

3. Culver's

For the ultimate guide to Culver's, the Culver family — George, Ruth, Craig, and Lea — has been happy to serve the public beloved ButterBurgers, Frozen Custard, and Cheese Curds since they turned on the grills at the hit eponymous restaurant which opened in Sauk City, Wisconsin in 1984. While the original location may be gone (a new one stands in its place), Culver's opened its first successful franchise in 1990 in Bamboo, Wisconsin.

Culver's familiar cursive blue and white logo, which is oval due to the fact the family formerly owned an A&W which already utilized that shape, stands out in 26 states, with around 800 restaurants in operation, including 145 back home in the Badger State. In 2022, the company hit the road in a food truck emblazoned with "From Wisconsin with Love" to spread the "Welcome to Delicious" message. According to Entrepreneur, the company ranks as the fifth best franchise in 2022, but is still only found in the U.S. Sadly, founder George M. Culver died in 2011.

4. Del Taco

Del Taco founder Ed Hackbarth started out working for Taco Bell founder Glen Bell as a manager at his taco and shake stand in Barstow. In 1961, Hackbarth went out on his own, with Bell's Mexican recipes in hand, to found Del Taco in Yermon, California. A few years later, with partner David Jameson, Del Taco started expanding, before merging with the Naugles restaurant chain in the late 1980s. To this day, Hackbarth and his family own three locations in Barstow, including the oldest operating one, with Hackbarth still getting involved in all aspects of the business (via Facebook).

A couple of years after selling off Qdoba, Jack In The Box got back into the fast-Mex game by acquiring Del Taco in 2022. Del Taco now has around 600 restaurants across 16 states. On the franchising site, it spells out it is "NOT taking applications for Southern California or for International Development," so it looks like the rest of the world will have to make the visit to the States to get a taco and tamales fix. Just remember to use the Del Taco codeword hack to "go bold" to add secret sauce and fries

5. In-N-Out

In-N-Out, with its delicious Double-Double hamburgers, shakes, fries, (not so) secret hacks menu, crossed palm trees, and iconic arrow branding, has become not only an American institution, but an obsession. Founded in 1948 by Harry and Esther Snyder in Baldwin Park, California, In-N-Out holds claim to being California's first drive-thru hamburger stand, and wouldn't expand upon its California borders until it opened a location in Las Vegas in 1992. Since then, In-N-Out has provided "quality you can taste" to lucky people in Arizona, Utah, Texas, Oregon, Colorado, and Tennessee.

Today the company is run by Snyder's granddaughter Lynsi, who keeps the family tradition going strong, including owning all the locations, which must be no more than a day's drive from the nearest warehouse. Snyder told Forbes, "I don't see us stretched across the whole U.S. I don't see us in every state ... You put us in every state and it takes away some of its luster."

That hasn't stopped In-N-Out from promoting its name and food abroad, touring more than 20 countries with pop-ups in Tokyo, Australia, and London. Carl Van Fleet, In-N-Out's vice president for planning and development, told Market Watch that it has no "immediate plans to open permanent restaurants" outside of the U.S. While these limited tastings have teased the locals, some see it as a way for the company to protect its trademark overseas from copycat competitors like In & Out Aussie Burgers and Down-N-Out.

6. Jimmy John's

There's probably a lot you didn't know about Jimmy John's. Apart from having two first names, the sandwich shop started in the college town of Charleston, Illinois by Jimmy John Liautaud in 1983 has thrived to this day by keeping it simple, offering a relatively small choice of meats, bread, cheese, and of course, "free smells." Liautaud started expanding on his own, and by 1994, with 10 shops, he sold his first franchise. Today, Jimmy John's sells "the sandwich of sandwiches" in nearly 2,800 locations in 43 states.

When a majority stake of Jimmy John's was sold to Roark Capital Group in 2016, market watchers saw it as a sign for possible global expansion. Darren Tristano, president of Technomic told the Chicago Tribune, "There are certainly opportunities outside of the U.S., starting with Canada and then you look at London, South America, and Mexico."

Liautaud merged his remaining stake into Inspire Brands in 2019, but as of 2023, there is yet a Jimmy John's to open up outside America. The closest you can get to international is either the Ontario ... California location, something called Jimmy Joans in Australia, or do some wishful thinking looking at the "sandwich delivery zone" ad that features a map of Paris, France.

7. Krystal

Krystal has been called "the South's answer to White Castle," but the hamburger chain serving sliders has proved it's hip to be square since Rody Davenport Jr. and J. Glenn Sherrill got things cooking in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1932. The name "Krystal" was derived from the founders' fondness for cleanliness, as in "crystal clean." One of their biggest fans was the King himself, Elvis Presley, who celebrated his first ever radio broadcast with them.

After 90 years in business, Krystal has sold more than 10 billion sliders filled with diced onions, mustard, and a slice of dill pickle. The company has mostly stayed true to its southern roots and geography, although many would like this regional burger chain to go national. Georgia currently plays home to more than a third of the company's locations with 104 (via ScrapeHero). In 2022, Krystal made its first "international" move by opening a restaurant in Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory).

Puerto Rico may just be the beginning for Krystal's global reach, as it is currently offering new franchise opportunities in Asia, Middle East, Europe, Canada, South America, and Mexico.

8. Waffle House

While he may have been a novice to the wonders of Waffle House, Anthony Bourdain instantly nailed its appeal on his first visit, saying, "Its warm yellow glow, a beacon of hope and salvation, inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered, all across the south, to come inside. A place of safety and nourishment. It never closes, it is always, always faithful, always there for you." 

Georgian neighbors Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner opened the first one in 1955, which used to be called something completely different. Open 24-hours a day, the chain has since sprouted to more than 1,900 locations in 25 states. Apart from seeing a steady stream of regular customers devouring pecan waffles, it's also a place to help assess the damage from natural disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency uses the "Waffle House Index," which says, "If a Waffle House can serve a full menu, they've likely got power (or are running on a generator). A limited menu means an area may not have running water or electricity, but there's gas for the stove to make bacon, eggs, and coffee: exactly what hungry, weary people need."

Waffle House currently doesn't offer franchise opportunities, and as for expanding beyond America, if Chicago has no hope, what chance does the rest of the world have?

9. Whataburger

Everything is bigger in Texas. When Harmon Dobson opened his tiny Texas hamburger stand in 1950, he served "a burger so big that it took two hands to hold, and so good that after a single bite customers couldn't help but exclaim, 'What a burger!'" Whataburger was born and a decade later, it expanded out of Texas, with its ubiquitous orange and white, A-frame buildings opening up all over the south. It now serves 372 cities (284 of which are in the Lone Star State).

Whataburger isn't shy about expanding, but likes to do things at its own pace. That hasn't stopped it from giving fans what they want — expanding to sell signature condiments and bright apparel. The official hamburger of the Dallas Cowboys also has a fan in Texas born NFL star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who said "I love Kansas City and I love Whataburger. I'm excited to help bring a gift from my first home to my second home" (via Wichita Business Journal).

Senior vice president and chief operating officer Clifton Rutledge admitted to QSR Magazine, "We're not out there trying to put dots on maps and we'll never be the brand opening 100 stores a year." So for now, Mexico will have to embrace knock-off Weroburger, and Canada will have to take solace in the company's tweet: "May your country one day be blessed with a Whataburger."

10. Zaxby's

Zach McLeroy thought he was going to be a rock star drummer, but inspired by the chicken finger joint Guthrie's, decided to chicken out on his dreams, and sold his drum kit. Along with partner Tony Townley, he opened Zax in 1990 in Statesboro, Georgia. McLeroy told The Red & Black that no one was really focused on chicken fingers as an entree back then. Luckily for them, it worked, and they expanded to other college towns, and then began opening franchises in other Georgia cities. 

Renamed Zaxby's to avoid copyright issues with Zack's Frozen Yogurt (via The Macon Telegraph), the chain got noticed for its playful advertising featuring celebrities like Richard Dean Anderson, Jill Hennessy, and Chris Kattan, and added a bit of Zattitude with its menu with names like fingerz, mealz and zalads. Now with more than 900 locations in 19 states, Zaxby's ranks as one of the top five chicken chains in America.

Will Z mark the spot for a Zaxby's abroad one day? The company did attend the 2022 International Franchise Expo in New York, where Zaxby's director of franchise business development, Tray Doster said in a press release, "This is an incredible chance for entrepreneurs to learn more about Zaxby's and for us to meet individuals who would be a great fit for our rapid expansion." Chicken fingers crossed.