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NEW YORK — Wendy's has dethroned Burger King as the country's second biggest hamburger chain.
Wendy's International Inc. edged out Burger King Corp. in U.S. sales volume last year for the first time since Wendy's was founded in 1969, according to a report by the food industry research firm Technomic Inc. to be released next month.
Wendy's had sales of $8.5 billion in 2011, compared with $8.4 billion for Burger King. McDonald's Inc. remained far larger with $34.2 billion.
The figures are based on Technomic's estimates of systemwide sales at franchise and company-owned restaurants, rather than corporate revenue, which includes fees from franchise operators. Worldwide, Burger King still has far more restaurants than Wendy's and remains the second-biggest hamburger chain behind McDonald's.
Both Burger King and Wendy's have struggled in recent years to keep up with the growth of McDonald's, which has kept prices low through the recession while also introducing new menu items and remodeling restaurants.
Sales are up 26 percent in the past five years at McDonald's, up 9 percent at Wendy's, and flat at Burger King, according to Technomic.
Wendy's chief executive officer, Emil Brolick, laid out plans to raise standards for employees and update stores this year with an airier, more modern look.
The sales rankings for the top five restaurant chains have undergone another dramatic shift in the past five years, according to Technomic.
In 2006, the No. 2 and No. 3 spots were held by Burger King and Wendy's respectively, making the top three companies all hamburger chains.
Subway now is No. 2 with $11.4 billion in sales last year and Starbucks Corp. is No. 3 with $9.8 billion. U.S. sales at both firms have grown at a much faster rate than at the top three hamburger chains, with Subway sales up 48 percent from five years ago and Starbucks' up 39 percent.
Limited-service chains, which include fast food and fast casual eateries, had a 3.7 percent sales bump.
The latter category had blockbuster performance, with Panera Bread Co. clocking a 10.1 percent boost, Chipotle Mexican Grill soaring 23.4 percent, and Five Guys Burgers and Fries — the fastest-growing chain — posting 32.8 percent growth.
Full-service restaurants had a more mellow year, with a 2.8 percent increase in sales after a flat 2010. Seafood and steak eateries were healthiest overall, with Red Lobster's sales jumping 6.2 percent and LongHorn Steakhouses' figures up 13.1 percent.