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Why Burger King is Back at No. 2

The Wendy’s Co. releases its audited 2012 financial results tomorrow (2/28), which no doubt will rekindle debate over whether Wendy’s or Burger King is the bigger brand in the U.S. and Canada. I believe Burger King again has the No. 2 position.

Sources: Wendy’s 2012 sales estimated; all other data is from company financial filings.

But I’m not convinced that it really lost that spot last year. Last year’s “Wendy’s Overtakes Burger King” media frenzy was based on assumptions that Burger King had 2011 sales of $8.4 billion, putting it slightly behind the $8.5 billion in sales for Wendy’s. But now that it’s publicly traded again, Burger King Worldwide’s 2012 10-K report filed with the SEC shows that company restaurant revenues and franchisee sales in the U.S. and Canada in 2011 were actually $8.682 billion.

So did Wendy’s overtake Burger King last year? Not if Wendy’s actual sales were $8.5 billion, but it’s difficult to say with certainty because Wendy’s never breaks out its company/franchised North America sales. Perhaps the company will do so tomorrow if only to end the debate and debunk my estimate that it stands slightly behind Burger King still/again.

This year’s numbers: In 2012, Burger King’s U.S./Canada sales from 7,476 company and franchised stores totaled $8.937 billion according to the company’s 10-K filing. Can Wendy’s beat that? It’s going to be close, but I don’t think so.

Wendy’s “Red” character has proved to be an effective spokeswoman.

At the end of 2012, Wendy’s and its franchisees operated 6,186 restaurants in North America. The average unit sales volume (AUV) was $1.48 million. Multiply the number of stores by the AUV and you get $9.155 billion. So Wendy’s wins?

Burger King here has adopted the “Taste is King” tagline it used before in Europe.

Not so fast. As I learned during my years compiling Restaurants & Institutions magazine’s annual “Top 400 Chains” ranking, it’s not that clean and easy. Stores open and close; some may be smaller, nontraditional units. As proof, if you multiply Burger King’s 7,476 stores by its $1.268 million AUV you get $9.48 billion, which we know is 6% above the actual total.

But I’m generously estimating that Wendy’s actual sales were 96% of the (AUV X Stores) equation. I’m estimating Wendy’s 2012 North America sales at $8.8 billion, which makes it the No. 3 domestic burger chain in North America once again. That seems a very parochial title, however.

Increasingly, the QSR business is a global enterprise, so true systemwide sales that include international are the real measure of brand power. Burger King’s global sales in 2012 were $15.84 billion and Wendy’s, with just 374 international units, isn’t there yet. And neither is close to catching McDonald’s Corp.’s global sales, which were $85.9 billion in 2011 and will pass the $90 billion mark for 2012 when results are announced next month.

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