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A barista prepares a coffee drink at a Starbucks store in Beijing on Tuesday, March 8, 2011. Starbucks is the world's biggest coffee-shop chain.

Nelson Ching/Bloomberg/Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

Is the soy vanilla latte trumping the hamburger as the iconic North American fast food?

Starbucks has edged out Burger King and Wendy's to become the third-largest American chain restaurant in domestic sales, reports USA Today.

Starbucks now sits behind top dog McDonald's and runner-up Subway, according to research firm Technomic's just-released listing of America's top 500 restaurant chains in total 2010 U.S. sales, the paper says.

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"For decades, the nation's top three restaurant chains were the burger and fries triumvirate: McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's. No longer. Two of 2010's top three - Subway and Starbucks - don't even sell burgers or fries," writes Bruce Horovitz.

A few theories:

1. Widening their food options with those cute little cake pops and better sandwiches has won over new fans.

2. The company's latest push to remind coffee lovers about the 87,000 espresso drink combinations available has worked.

"You can change the size, temperature (hot or iced?), flavour, milk, toppings - you name it," urges the chain's website.

And they're practically cajoling customers to turn ordering into a parlour game with this customization page online.

You can almost hear the executives thinking, "C'mon, can't you do better than a cinnamon dolce non-fat latte grande? Don't be lazy, add a few more adjectives and toppings, will you?"

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Once you've nailed your perfect drink, why wouldn't you order it more often? Bonus for Starbucks: It likely costs more, too, thanks to the extra syrups and shots.

3. Customers have given Starbucks a bump because they think other chains are more unhealthy. But they may be deluded. While a Whopper, for instance, rings in at a hefty 670 calories according to the Burger King website, a fancy Starbucks coffee - say a grande caffe mocha at 330 calories - gets you halfway there without any actual lunch.

Food for thought.

So, readers, what are your top three food chains? Tim Hortons all the way?

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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