Right before Yum! Brands finished its Q4 earnings call with investors, CEO David Gibbs tossed out a fact that put the brand’s unit growth into perspective.
Nearly 25 percent of all current Yum! locations have been built in the past three years. Given the company ended 2023 with 58,708 locations worldwide—extending its claim as the largest restaurant group in the world—roughly 15,000 of them are 3 years old or younger.
“It gives you a sense for, first of all, the condition of our asset base around the world and how new it feels given the age of the brands, but also the commitment that our franchisees have to this business,” Gibbs said during Yum!’s Q4 earnings call. “They’re investing their capital in building those stores. … That’s gross new units, so a lot of those stores replaced the stores that had reached the end of their useful life. So it shows their commitment to the next 20-30 years of the brand. They have been fantastic partners. They’ve always been our competitive advantage.”
In 2023, Yum! opened an industry record 4,754 gross restaurants. That’s equivalent to 13 store openings per day or one every two hours. In the fourth quarter alone, the company debuted 1,853 gross units. On a net basis, Yum! added 3,347 outlets in 2023.
Additionally, Yum! exceeded $60 billion in companywide sales for the first time. More than 45 percent of that was digital, or about $30 billion on an absolute dollar basis. Yum!’s proprietary online ordering platform has been deployed to KFC U.S. and Taco Bell U.S. and is in the process of being implemented at Pizza Hut U.S.
This year will bring more milestones. Yum! is set to become the first restaurant company to surpass 60,000 outlets globally. KFC will reach 30,000 and Pizza Hut will surpass 20,000.
“We are very confident in the pace of development. The pipeline has never looked better for us,” Gibbs said. “Obviously, it varies country by country, but franchisees are getting great returns. … We have a lot of good visibility into the pipeline, the development agreements that we’ve struck with franchisees. And the way we’re evolving our asset types, I think is another tailwind for us on development.”
KFC’s international segment opened a record high of nearly 2,700 new stores across 97 countries in 2023. More than 80 percent of that came from 15 publicly traded franchisees. Among those was Yum! China, which crossed 10,000 KFC stores in Q4, with nearly 40 percent of them built in the past three years. In the long term, KFC sees an opportunity to reach 50,000 stores worldwide because of its international prowess. Outside the U.S., the chain had 26,109 stores in 2023.
Domestically, the brand ended last year with 3,791 units. After seeing U.S. net positive growth in 2021 for the first time in 17 years, KFC shuttered a net of 162 restaurants combined in 2022 and 2023.
KFC’s fourth-quarter comps grew 2 percent internationally and remained flat in the U.S. as the Israel-Palestine conflict impacted sales in several markets. The U.S. market is planning to boost customer visitation with a range of initiatives, like the Smashed Potato Bowl, the first bowl innovation since 2019, and the launch of the chain’s first rewards program.
For Taco Bell, U.S. same-store sales increased 3 percent in Q4 year-over-year and 15 percent on a two-year basis. Although the chain faced tough comparisons early in the quarter related to the Mexican Pizza, it finished strong with U.S. comps up more than 5 percent in December. Also, Taco Bell crossed $15 billion in system sales for the first time, and a sizable portion of that came via digital channels. The brand’s digital mix reached a record 31 percent in Q4, up seven points year-over-year. That’s thanks to in-store kiosk sales, which mixed 15 points higher in Q4 compared to the year-ago period. Loyalty is a point of emphasis as well; the active user base lifted 17 percent in 2023. Taco Bell plans to ramp up the excitement for its loyal guests in 2024 by introducing a new product every five weeks—twice the rate of 2023.
Most importantly, the brand managed to deliver 24 percent margins last year while still leading the quick-service industry in several key value perception indicators. The chain saw outperformance from restaurants in low-income trade areas versus the rest of the business, and that’s for Q4 and the full year. Also, the value menu—tweaked to be $3 and under—is over-indexing with consumers compared to the testing stage. Gibbs views it as a competitive advantage and a path to maintaining franchisee profitability.
“I think that speaks to the strength of Taco Bell in this environment. It is a value leader in so many ways,” Gibbs said. “When you talk to consumers about value, they win on every value perception score and they can do value with innovation, which is also a great combination, and they can do value while having industry-leading margins. So you think about the room that we have to compete with everybody else in the category, I really, really like our position with Taco Bell. Obviously as we move into Q1 we’ve got tougher laps—weather really played havoc on sales early in the quarter, and as we’ve said, it’s going to be the lowest quarter of the year—but we think this environment is one that obviously we can thrive in.”
Taco Bell finished the year with 7,405 U.S. and 1,159 international restaurants, for a total of 8,564.
Pizza Hut U.S. comps dipped 4 percent in Q4 due to lapping the Melts launch and the promotion of Detroit-style pizza. The sluggish same-store sales will likely continue in the first quarter as the brand saw comps increase 8 percent a year ago thanks to a full quarter of sales from the Melts and the Big New Yorker. However, trends are expected to improve on a two-year basis in Q1. Globally, the pizza chain opened 575 gross stores in Q4 and almost 1,600 in 2023—a new record. Seventy-three markets contributed to brand development, including 900-plus locations across China, India, Turkey, Japan, and Canada.
By the end of 2023, Pizza Hut had 6,593 U.S. restaurants and 13,273 international outlets, totaling 19,866.
The Habit Burger Grill’s same-store sales declined 5 percent in Q4. In 2023, the leadership team focused on expediting kiosk rollouts, implementing a sales-driving labor optimization model, and harnessing Yum!’s co-op purchasing group to lower procurement costs and rationalize SKUs. Because of these efforts, the fast casual achieved a 380-basis-point lift in full-year store-level margins despite the softness in comps. The Habit finished 2023 with 378 units globally, including 366 in the U.S.