The nationwide day of demonstrations came after similar actions organized by unions and community groups over the past several months. Workers are calling for the right to unionize without interference from employers and for pay of $15 an hour. That's more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or $15,000 a year for full-time employees.
Thursday's walkouts and protests reached about 60 cities, including New York, Chicago and Detroit, organizers said. But the turnout varied significantly, with some targeted restaurants seemingly operating normally and others temporarily unable to do business because they had too few employees.
Ryan Carter, a 29-year-old who bought a $1 cup of coffee at a New York McDonald's where protesters gathered, said he "absolutely" supported the demand for higher wages.
"They work harder than the billionaires in this city," he said. But Carter said he didn't plan to stop his regular trips to McDonald's.
Jobs in low-wage industries have led the economic recovery. Advocates for a higher minimum wage say that makes it crucial that the jobs pay enough for workers who support families.
The restaurant industry says it already operates on thin margins and insists that sharply higher wages would lead to steeper prices for customers and fewer opportunities for job seekers.
The drive for better pay comes as the White House, some members of Congress and economists seek to raise the federal minimum wage. But most proposals are for a more modest increase, with President Barack Obama suggesting $9 an hour.
The Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million workers in health care, janitorial and other industries, has been providing financial support and training for local organizers in the fast-food strikes around the country.
Walkouts were also planned Thursday in Atlanta, Hartford, Conn., Los Angeles, Milwaukee, St. Louis and other cities, organizers said.
In New York, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn joined about 300 to 400 workers and supporters Thursday in a march before the group flooded into a McDonald's near the Empire State Building. Shortly after the demonstration, however, the restaurant seemed to be operating normally, and a few customers said they hadn't heard of the movement. The same was true at a McDonald's a few blocks away.
The lack of public awareness illustrates the challenge workers face in building wider support. Workers participating in the strikes still represent a tiny fraction of the industry. And the industry is still known for its high turnover rates and relatively young workers.
At a Wendy's in New York City, about 150 workers and supporters stood outside chanting, "We can't survive on $7.25." There were no customers inside.
In Detroit, the dining area of a McDonald's on the city's northwest side was shut down as workers and others protested outside.
In Raleigh, N.C., about 30 fast-food workers picketed outside a Little Caesars. Julio Wilson said he earned $9 an hour at the pizza restaurant, where he has worked for about six months. He said it's not enough to support himself and his 5-year-old daughter.
"I know I'm risking my job, but it's my right to fight for what I deserve," Wilson said. "Nine dollars an hour is not enough to make ends meet nowadays."
A few dozen people gathered along the street outside a McDonald's in Las Vegas, chanting and carrying signs that read "Strike for a living wage" and "Huelga por $15," Spanish for "Strike for $15." But an employee at the restaurants said it stayed open for business throughout the demonstration.
In Seattle, dozens of people gathered outside a Subway to chant for a $15 minimum wage. Workers inside said they stayed open during the demonstration, and customers were still able to buy sandwiches.
The latest protests follow a series of strikes that began last November in New York City. The biggest effort so far was over the summer when about 2,200 of the country's millions of fast-food workers staged a one-day strike in seven cities.
McDonald's Corp. and Burger King Worldwide Inc. say they don't make decisions about pay for the independent franchisees that operate the majority of their U.S. restaurants. At restaurants that McDonald's owns, the company said, any move to raise entry-level pay would raise overall costs and lead to higher menu prices.
It said that McDonald's provides professional development for interested employees and that the protests don't give an accurate picture of what it means to work at McDonald's.
"We respect our employees' rights to voice their opinions. Employees who participate in these activities and return to work are welcomed back and scheduled to work their regular shifts as usual," the company said in an emailed statement.
Wendy's said in statement that it was "proud to provide a place where thousands of people, who come to us asking for a job, can enter the workforce at a starting wage, gain skills and advance with us or move on to something else."
Starbucks spokesman Zack Huston said the strikes have not affected the company's stores. He noted that Starbucks workers earn "competitive wages" and affordable health care that other retailers do not provide for part-time workers.
Subway and Yum Brands Inc., which owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, did not respond to requests for comment.
Even though they're not part of unions, fast-food workers who take part in strikes are generally protected from being fired or having employers retaliate against them. Federal labor law gives all workers the right to engage in "protected concerted activities" to complain about wages, working conditions or other terms of employment.
"It's always been understood that people who fall under this concerted activity umbrella are protected as long as they are protesting not only on their own behalf but on behalf of others as well," said Robert Kaiser, a St. Louis labor law attorney.
Associated Press writers Michelle Rindels in Las Vegas, Rodrique Ngowi in Boston, Donna Blankinship in Seattle and Michael Biesecker in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.