What FRANdata Thinks

Multi-Unit Growth By the Numbers

June 6th, 2019 by Darrell Johnson

All the statistics point to continuing expansion

For the past decade or more, you have heard me say that the majority of franchised units in the U.S. are owned by multi-unit operators. With more than 450,000 franchised units in the country, multi-unit operators control about 54 percent of those units. That’s impressive, and the percentage controlled by multi-unit operators continues to rise. This growth is a consequence of many brands focusing their development models on multi-unit development packages over single-unit programs.

Today, FRANdata’s database shows the following breakdown of multi-unit operators (MUOs):

Category Actual MUO Count 2018
MUOs with 2–5 units 35,407
MUOs with 6–10 units 4,566
MUOs with 11–25 units 2,279
MUOs with 26–50 units 606
MUOs with 50+ units 354
TOTAL 43,212

These are the “known” franchisees in our database. While we try to keep up with the changes in each franchise system, our database does not include current data for all of today’s 3,700-plus brands. Therefore, each category understates the actual total. Since our database is more current with the larger brands and most of the medium-sized to smaller brands, any under-counting is primarily with the less-established brands, which are less likely to have many multi-unit operators.

Statistically, we think we have more than 90 percent in each category. Using this 90 percent confidence level leads us to the estimated counts in the next table. Thus, in total, we believe there are more than 43,000 multi-unit operators in the U.S. With the number of units they control and the brands and sectors they operate in, we calculate the combined annual revenue of multi-unit operators somewhere around $200 billion. There’s some serious operational, business, and political influence in that figure!

We also know that the number of units they control is growing. But how is the number of multi-unit operators changing? For that, we can turn to our actual database counts. Assuming the actual-to-estimated changes are consistent, the actual counts should reflect about the same percentage change per category that our estimated numbers would show.

Category Actual MUO Count 2010 Actual MUO

Count 2018

Percentage Change
MUOs with 2–5 units 28,862 35,407 +22.68%
MUOs with 6–10 units 3,411 4,566 +33.86%
MUOs with 11–25 units 1,630 2,279 +39.82%
MUOs with 26–50 units 397 606 +52.64%
MUOs with 50+ units 162 354 +118.52%
TOTALS 34,462 43,212 +25.39%

In the 8-year span from 2010 to 2018, we’ve seen a 23 percent increase in entry-level multi-unit operators (2–5 units). That’s certainly consistent with our analysis of the development models franchise brands have been using over the past few years. Much more interesting is the expansion of the larger categories of multi-unit operators. Over the past 3 years, those categories expanded about 3.4 percent. Even more interesting is the consistency with which each category expanded, ranging between 1.3 and 10 percent.

Multi-unit trends

Several obvious trends are affecting these outcomes. Multi-unit development models became a common form for expansion only in the past 20 years. In a life cycle sense, the data confirms that this model is still solidly in a growth mode. And although many franchisors have had to cancel contracts for development, especially for the second and third units within the contract timelines, these data suggest that many second, third, and fourth units have been added in recent years.

We also can’t ignore the impact that one of the “big two” small-business challenges—capital access—may have had on the growth statistics of multi-unit operators. (The other, of course, is unit sales in a soft economy.) Most banks have tightened their underwriting borrower qualification standards to include existing experience in the industry. This undoubtedly has led to more multi-unit operators compared with new single-unit operators.

Finally, it should be noted that the growth of multi-unit operators is happening, in part, as the result of some single-unit operators exiting the business. Transfers are on the rise across many industries. And, as I’ve noted previously, multi-unit operators increasingly are the buyers of existing units. It makes sense, since they are in the best position to evaluate the current operations and future potential of an existing unit.

All of this suggests a continuing rise in influence of the multi-unit operator within franchising. Want further evidence? Franchise Update Media’s annual Multi-Unit Franchising Conference continues to set attendance records. Looks like I’ll be seeing more of you in Las Vegas next year!


Darrell Johnson is CEO of FRANdata, an independent research company supplying information and analysis for the franchising sector since 1989. He can be reached at 703-740-4700 or djohnson@www.frandata.com.

*This article originally appeared in the 2019 Multi-Unit Franchisee Buyer’s Guide. You can view the issue here.

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