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    Study: America Picks its Favorite Quick-Service Chains

  • For the first time in the annual study's history, a C-store took the top sandwich spot.

    Chipotle
    Chipotle is still No. 1 in the Mexican category—but not by much.

    Market Force Information’s annual consumer study of America’s favorite quick-service restaurants produced some surprising results. The data, gleaned from nearly 11,500 consumers, ranked the top burger, sandwich, Mexican, pizza, and chicken brands. It also revealed consumer’s quick-service dining habits, brand preferences, and in-technology use.

    As a whole, Brad Christian, chief customer officer at Market Force Information, said scores on the composite loyalty index for quick-service chains declined versus last year.

    “We attribute this to two factors: consumer expectations of the [quick-service restaurant] experience are rising, and, in many cases, execution at these restaurants is declining. As our research continues to show, delighting guests by providing an exceptional customer experience is a key differentiator in an incredibly competitive environment,” he said in a release.

    The data was compiled by asking participants to rate their satisfaction with their most recent quick-service experience, and their likelihood to refer that restaurant to others. These results were averaged to attain a composite loyalty index score. Only chains that received at least 100 voters and representing 2 percent or more of votes were analyzed.

    It was conducted online in February. Fifty percent reported household incomes of more than $50,000 a year. Respondents’ ages ranged from 18 to over 65. About 73 percent were women and 26 percent were men.

    Here were the findings:

    Burgers

    For the second consecutive year, cult-favorite In-N-Out topped the rankings. Not just that, but In-N-Out also took the top spot in all eight customer experience categories, including value, food quality, service speed, staff friendliness, cleanliness, atmosphere, healthy options, and curb appeal. Five Guys was second for food, speed of service, and cleanliness, and Culver’s notched second for atmosphere, friendliness, and curb appeal.

    Full burger rankings:

    • In-N-Out: 76 percent
    • Culver’s: 66 percent
    • Smashburger: 54 percent
    • Steak n’ Shake: 52 percent
    • Whataburger: 50 percent
    • Carl’s Jr.: 42 percent
    • Wendy’s 39 percent
    • Sonic: 39 percent
    • Hardee’s: 38 percent
    • Burger King: 36 percent
    • Jack in the Box: 33 percent
    • McDonald’s: 29 percent

    The data showed some interesting additional burger notes.

    • 46 percent visited a burger fast-food or fast-casual restaurant at least five times in the previous 90 days
    • 44 percent used the drive thru during their most recent visit and 38 percent dined in
    • 18 percent brought children on their most recent visit
    • Smashburger has the highest awareness for its loyalty program
    • McDonald’s has the highest mobile app awareness
    Market Force

    Sandwich

    It’s no secret C-stores are serious competition for quick-serves. Market Force’s data showed that reality in a telling way. For the first time in the study’s history, a C-store landed the top spot for America’s favorite sandwich shop.

    Wawa, which has more than 790 locations on the East Coast, rose four places to unseat 2017’s top chain, Firehouse Subs. Firehouse still earned lead honors for food quality and atmosphere, and tied with Jersey Mike’s and Jimmy John’s for staff friendliness. Jason’s Deli was No. 1 for healthy options, while Jimmy John’s received top marks for speed of service and overall cleanliness. Wawa led in value, 5 percentage points ahead of Subway.

    Full sandwich rankings:

    • Wawa: 64 percent
    • Firehouse Subs: 62 percent
    • Jersey Mike’s: 59 percent
    • Jimmy John’s: 58 percent
    • Jason’s Deli: 57 percent
    • McAlister’s Deli: 57 percent
    • Panera Bread: 54 percent
    • Subway: 45 percent
    • Arby’s: 42 percent

    Some additional sandwich findings:

    • 32 percent visited a sandwich chain at least five times in the previous 90 days
    • Half of customers chose take-out on their most recent visit, while 36 percent dined in
    • Only 12 percent brought children on their most recent visit
    • Panera led in loyalty card awareness—78 percent know they offer one
    • Wawa once again has the highest mobile app awareness with 67 percent, up from 48 percent in 2017
    Market Force

    Mexican

    Chipotle narrowly maintained its grip as America’s favorite Mexican chain, according to the study. The brand led in food quality, speed of service, healthy options, and cleanliness, and tied with El Pollo Loco for curb appeal. Del Taco was No. 1 in value, while Moe’s reported the friendliest staff, and Qdoba the most appealing atmosphere.

    Full Mexican brand rankings:

    • Chipotle: 46.3 percent
    • El Pollo Loco: 46.2 percent
    • Qdoba: 45 percent
    • Moe’s Southwest Grill: 43 percent
    • Taco Cabana: 40 percent
    • Del Taco: 37 percent
    • Taco Bueno: 34 percent
    • Taco John’s: 33 percent
    • Taco Bell: 28 percent

    Additional Mexican chain highlights:

    • 37 percent visited a Mexican quick-service chain at least five times in the previous 90 days 
    • 41 percent dined in during their most recent visit, and 30 percent used the drive-thru
    • 22 percent brought children on their most recent visit
    • Qdoba has the highest awareness for its loyalty program with 58 percent
    • Moe’s Southwest Grill has the most awareness of its mobile app with 47 percent
    Market Force

    Pizza

    Pizza yielded perhaps the biggest surprise of the study. Pizza Ranch, an Iowa-based brand with 200 locations in 13 states, ousted Marco’s Pizza for the top spot. Pizza Ranch and Papa Murphy’s led in every customer experience category except value, which belonged to Little Caesar’s. Papa Murphy’s was No. 1 in food quality, healthy options, and cleanliness. Pizza Ranch took top honors in atmosphere and curb appeal, friendliest staff, fastest service speed, best atmosphere, and curb appeal.

    Full pizza rankings:

    • Pizza Ranch: 64 percent
    • Papa Murphy’s: 62 percent
    • Marco’s Pizza: 55 percent
    • Domino’s: 45 percent
    • Papa John’s: 45 percent
    • Pizza Hut: 42 percent
    • Little Caesar’s: 41 percent
    • Cici’s: 30 percent

    Some other pizza notes:

    • 28 percent visited a pizza chain at least five times in the previous 90 days
    • Take out (55 percent) is still the most popular way to dine for pizza chain customers
    • 21 percent brought children on their most recent visit
    • Pizza Ranch led in loyalty card awareness—90 percent of customers know they offer one
    • Domino’s has the highest awareness for its mobile app—67 percent are familiar with it
    Market Force

    Chicken

    Chick-fil-A’s dominant reign continued, with the chicken giant earning its fourth straight spot atop the rankings. The chain received the highest scores in every category except healthy options (El Pollo Loco). Raising Cane’s was a strong performer as well, taking second in seven of eight categories.

    Full chicken rankings:

    • Chick-fil-A: 73 percent
    • Raising Cane’s: 68 percent
    • Zaxby’s: 51 percent
    • El Pollo Loco: 51 percent
    • Boston Market: 46 percent
    • Popeyes: 42 percent
    • Bojangles’: 41 percent
    • Church’s Chicken: 39 percent
    • Buffalo Wild Wings: 39 percent
    • KFC: 31 percent

    Additional chicken highlights:

    • 31 percent visited a chicken chain at least five times in the previous 90 days
    • The majority of customers opted for the drive-thru (39 percent), followed closely by those who chose to dine in the restaurant (33 percent)
    • 20 percent dined with children on their most recent visit
    • Buffalo Wild Wings led in loyalty card awareness—44 percent know they offer one
    • Chick-fil-A has the highest mobile app awareness with 55 percent, followed by El Pollo Loco with 45 percent
    Market Force

    Tech talks

    Market Force’s study also founded that the use of technology by quick-service guests is on the rise. Thirty-nine percent said they ordered meals via smartphone app in the past 90 days, which was a sizable lift from last year’s 11 percent mark. Additionally, 28 percent used a kiosk and 27 percent used a table to place their order.

    Market Force
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