Small Business

Franchise players: Megachains that rely heavily on franchises

Chains that depend on mom and pop

McDonalds' "Sirloin Third Pound" hamburgers.

On the outside, giant restaurants can often look similar—limited-time offerings, value menus and heavy marketing.

But look under the hood, and you'll find that some are heavily dependent on the franchise model, or generating income from individual franchisees who pay annual royalties and advertising fees in addition to a onetime set-up fee. Depending on the chain, franchisees also must have substantial personal assets.

While heavily franchised businesses typically generate a less volatile stream of cash flow, they also receive a smaller benefit from restaurant boom times when sales are through the roof.

Wells Fargo recently crunched the numbers to find out what happens when the Fed raises rates, which typically occurs in exactly the healthy consumer environment when predominately franchised restaurants see a smaller benefit.

Turns out, such heavily franchised restaurants have underperformed the broader market in three of the last four periods of rising rates. These franchise heavyweights have performed in line with their broader restaurant peer group. This suggests investors focus more on a sector group rather than a particular business model, analysts found.

Pictured here are McDonald's upcoming Sirloin Third Pounders. About 81.5 percent of the fast food chain's restaurants are franchised.

Which restaurants depend most heavily on franchises as ranked by the percent of total revenue coming from franchisees, according to company filings and Wells Fargo?

Click ahead to find out.

Correction: This slideshow has been updated to reflect Burger King's total revenue.

By CNBC's Katie Little
Posted 19 April 2015

10. Sonic Drive-In

Sonic Drive-In meal
Source: Sonic Drive-In

Franchise revenue as a percentage of total revenue: 25.1 percent

Franchise mix: 88.9 percent

Total revenue: $552 million

Nearly 90 percent of Sonic's restaurants are franchise locations, but they make up just a quarter of the chain's revenue. This highlights the unique nature of the franchise relationship, where franchise owners fork over a percent of sales, but not all of them go to the company's top-line as they would in a company-operated store.

9. Denny's

Denny's Rio Ranchero Skillet
Source: Denny's

Franchise revenue as a percentage of total revenue: 29.1 percent

Franchise mix: 90.5 percent

Total revenue: $472 million

While this family-dining restaurant already has a hefty percentage of franchised locations, Denny's expects its portion of company restaurants to gradually decrease even further. Earlier this decade, there was a push to sell some of its units to franchisees and reduce the number of its company-owned locations.

"The majority of our restaurant openings and the future growth of the brand will come primarily from the development of franchised restaurants," according to its latest annual report.

8. McDonald's

Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Franchise revenue as a percentage of total revenue: 33.8 percent

Franchise mix: 81.5 percent

Total revenue: $27.4 billion

The world's largest fast food chain refranchised more than 400 restaurants last year and chipped away at its three-year target of at least 1,500.

7. Krispy Kreme Doughnuts

Glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Getty Images

Franchise revenue as a percentage of total revenue: 34 percent

Franchise mix: 88.8 percent

Total revenue: $490 million

The doughnut company operates 111 corporate stores in the U.S. and none internationally. Over time, Krispy Kreme said it may consider refranchising some stores in markets outside its traditional Southeast U.S. traditional base.

6. Papa Murphy's

Papa Murphy's Steak Delight pizza.
Source: Papa Murphy's

Franchise revenue as a percentage of total revenue: 45 percent

Franchise mix: 93.6 percent in the U.S.

Total revenue: $97 million

This take-and-bake pizza chain targets a 10 percent portion of its stores being company owned. It plans to strategically expand this number in select markets through both acquisition of franchised stores and new store construction.

Papa Murphy's Angus steak delite pizza is pictured here.

5. Papa John's

Getty Images

Franchise revenue as a percentage of total revenue: 51.4 percent

Franchise mix: 84.2 percent

Total revenue: $1.6 billion

As of Dec. 28, Papa John's had 735 company-owned locations and 3,928 franchised restaurants. The company, like many in the restaurant space, has a higher percent of its international locations franchised.

4. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

Souce: Popeyes | Facebook

Franchise revenue as a percentage of total revenue: 55.7 percent

Franchise mix: 97.3 percent

Total revenue: $236 million

Just 65 of Popeyes U.S. locations are company operated. The other 1,805 are franchised locations. Internationally, the company has 509 franchised locations.

Franchise contributions to Popeyes' top-line come in a few forms: franchise royalties and fees, which are the bulk of the payments, and also rent from franchised restaurants.

3. Dunkin' Brands

Getty Images

Franchise revenue as a percentage of total revenue: 64.4 percent

Franchise mix: 99.8 percent

Total revenue: $749 million

Operating with a nearly 100 percent franchise model offers several strategic and financial benefits that Dunkin' Brands detailed in its latest annual report.

"For example, because we do not own or operate a significant number of restaurants, our Company is able to focus on menu innovation, marketing, franchisee coaching and support, and other initiatives to drive the overall success of our brand," according to its latest annual report. "Financially, our franchised model allows us to grow our points of distribution and brand recognition with limited capital investment by us."

2. DineEquity

Source: IHOP

Franchise revenue as a percentage of total revenue: 79.2 percent

Franchise mix: 99.1 percent

Total revenue: $655 million

With almost of its locations franchised, DineEquity requires minimum amounts of capital expenditures—a point it highlighted at a recent Raymond James conference. The amount it does spend on capex goes largely to IT and investments in programs it's testing.

When the company bought Applebee's, it was comprised of 1,455 franchised restaurants and 510 company-operated restaurants. Five years later, it had refranchised the majority of these company-operated Applebee's to become 99 percent franchised at both Applebee's and IHOP.

Shown here are pancakes and coffee from IHOP.

1. Restaurant Brands International

Burger King Nuggets
Source: Burger King

Franchise revenue as a percentage of total revenue: 86 percent

Franchise mix: 99.7 percent

Total revenue: $1.20 billion

The parent of Burger King is nearly 100 percent franchised. Only 52 Burger King locations were company owned at year-end. Brands often keep at least some franchise locations in order to test out new ideas and stay abreast of operations.

Burger King nuggets are pictured here.