This City Is the Fast Food Capital of America Right Now
Phoenix is now home to an astonishing number of popular regional chains from around the country
Need a midnight snack in California? Chances are, you're going to In-N-Out, the Golden State's favorite burger joint. Got the munchies in Texas? Whataburger's probably what you're after. Atlanta? Chick-fil-A, if it's not too late, otherwise Waffle House. (Obviously.) Midwesterners might crave cheese curds at Culver's, Chicagoans an Italian beef sandwich and one of those chocolate cake shakes from Portillo's, while New Yorkers might fire up the Postmates app and order from Shake Shack.
Lucky enough to live in Phoenix? These days, you can choose from any of the above, and then some. Chicken fingers from Raising Cane's. Free peanuts at Five Guys. Detroit-style pizza at Jet's. Those thin, crispy burgers from Steak 'n Shake. Breakfast sandwiches at Dunkin' Donuts. Tacos, Texas-style, at Fuzzy's. Italian subs piled high with hot peppers at Potbelly. Avocado-topped burgers from that other California chain, Habit. You name it, and Phoenix is eating it, every night of the week—sometimes all pretty much on the same street corner.
Watching so many worlds collide like this can be a little jarring to unlucky visitors from more deprived regions, but Phoenix isn't actually all that unique—this flooding of the fast-food zone is a story that's being repeated over and over again, all across the quickly-growing Sunbelt, a part of the United States that has been taking on large numbers of new arrivals from all over the country for generations now. With, say, so many Midwesterners having decamped for warmer climes, it makes sense that a prized regional brand like Culver's from back home would eventually start franchising in these new markets. Sometimes, however, the moves are even bolder, with staunchly regional companies identifying a major growth opportunity and then taking a major leap.
That's how, for example, California's In-N-Out (which does not franchise) is successfully competing with Whataburger, practically a religion in Texas, in cities like Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth and San Antonio. It's how also-not-franchised Wawa, a Philadelphia convenience store chain known for its quick service food, coffee, and cult-like following, has quickly become a staple of daily life in more than a few Florida cities; the company recently announced plans for the Miami market, with three stores opening early next year. (Wawa's popular Cuban Roast coffee might need a little rework, first—it's good, but it's not Miami good, just yet.)
Jealous of Phoenix but can't quite see yourself hacking life in the desert? There are some very close runners-up to know about—the also fast-growing Dallas-Fort Worth area comes very close to a tie with Phoenix—okay, so you'd have to make do without Habit Burger, or Portillo's, to mention just a couple of glaring omissions. Then again, maybe having substitutes like Torchy's Tacos—that fast-growing Austin chain famous for really good queso—more than makes up for a few losses. Over in Florida, both Jacksonville and Orlando are duking it out for supremacy; this time, you've got to let go of the dream of living next door to an In-N-Out burger. Your consolation prize? In Jacksonville, it's easy access to Whataburger; in Orlando, well, you're in Orlando, where you can get discounted access to Universal, not to mention all of the butterbeer ice cream you can eat. You're going to be just fine.