Ours is truly a fast food nation—in America, McDonald’s alone serves 28 million people a day. And while you won’t have any trouble finding some sort of fast food wherever you are, you may have trouble finding your preferred eatery. That’s because fast food is, in many ways, a regional affair—even though you’ll find the Golden Arches from coast to coast, certain chains are more predominant in certain parts of the country. Steve Von Worley’s newly updated Beefspace maps reveal the burger fiefdoms you never knew existed.
Von Worley, one of the preeminent fast food data visualizers of our time, first charted the Beefspace back in 2010. Using the inverse-square law, he produced a speckled map that showed which chain held the most influence in any given area. McDonalds, with 12,000-plus locations, was represented by the color black—which meant that the map was a very dark one indeed.
But Von Worley recently returned to the Beefspace—"I upgraded my Visualizationator’s speed by a few orders of magnitude," he says—to create a new, more sophisticated map of the fast food landscape.
The data whiz made two important upgrades to the new maps. Just like before, "black is McDonald’s, red Burger King, yellow Wendy’s, magenta Jack In The Box, periwinkle Sonic, cream Dairy Queen, green Carl’s Jr., and cyan Hardee’s"—but this time, at each point, the three most influential chains determine the color of that point, weighted 4-2-1. "So," he told me, "any point where McDonald’s dominates is a darker color, because it’s more than half (4/7) black, with the colors of the other two chains shining through, at low intensity."
But the new map also takes into consideration where people are likely to spend their money, borrowing insights from sources like Dirk Brockmann’s "Where’s George?" study (PDF), which used the greenback-tracking website to uncover some statistical laws about how people travel throughout the United States. In Von Worley’s words, "in the updated maps, the consumer eats burgers in the same places they’d likely drop cash."
So what does this tapestry show us? Burger King has a decently uniform presence across the country, as does Micky D’s, still the dark overlord of fast food across the country. Sonic shines bright in Texas and some of the adjacent states—it’s the only large swath of land where one of the insurgent chains has an overwhelming influence. And Dairy Queen makes a surprisingly strong showing in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Equal parts fascinating and nauseating.
If we get another update of the Beefspace map at some point, I’d be curious to see how Taco Bell fares—especially in the Southwest, where people know what real Mexican food tastes like.
You can check out more of Von Worley’s data viz work on his site, Data Pointed.