Similar protests organized by unions and community groups over the past several months have drawn attention to fast-food "McJobs," known for low pay and limited prospects.
Thursday's effort to stage a nationwide day of protest by thousands of workers reached about 60 cities including New York, Chicago and Detroit, organizers said. But the turnout varied significantly, with some targeted restaurants operating relatively normally and others temporarily shutting down 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 that was targeted by protesters, 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.
Advocates for a higher minimum wage note that jobs in low-wage industries have led the economic recovery. That makes it crucial that those 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.
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. Participating workers, who are asking for $15 an hour and the right to unionize without interference from employers, still represent a tiny fraction of the industry.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which works out to about $15,000 a year for full-time employees.
The quest 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.
Organizers said walkouts were planned Thursday in Atlanta, Boston, Hartford, Conn., Las Vegas, Los Angeles and other cities.
At a Wendy's in New York City, about 150 workers and supporters stood outside blowing whistles, beating drums and 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.
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.
"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.
It also noted that the protests didn't give an accurate picture of what it means to work at McDonald's. The company said it provides professional development for interested employees.
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 employees 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 a request 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.