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America’s favorite quick-service restaurants revealed in new MFI study

by | May 2, 2018 | Public Relations

A new, large-scale consumer study conducted by Market Force Information reveals America’s favorite quick-service restaurant (QSR) chains in five popular food categories—burgers, sandwiches, Mexican, pizza and chicken.

According to the research, In-N-Out is America’s favorite burger chain, Wawa ranked first for sandwiches, Chipotle for Mexican food, Pizza Ranch for pizza and Chick-fil-A for chicken.
Nearly 11,500 consumers were polled for the study, which also reveals consumers’ QSR dining habits, brand preferences and in-restaurant technology use.

“In this year’s study, we saw that scores on the Composite Loyalty Index for QSR brands across all categories declined from last year,” said Brad Christian, chief customer officer at Market Force Information, in a news release. “We attribute this to two factors: consumer expectations of the QSR 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.”

Burgers: In-N-Out Burger is Favorite, McDonald’s Lands at Bottom

In-N-Out fans are known for their fierce loyalty and, in many cases, their pleas for this regional burger chain to bring a location to their town. The California-based chain ranked No. 1 among burger chains in Market Force’s 2018 QSR study for the second consecutive year, followed by Culver’s in second place and Five Guys in third. In-N-Out also received the highest scores across all QSR food categories studied, making it America’s favorite QSR across the board. On the flip side, Burger King, Jack in the Box and McDonald’s ranked lowest among the 13 burger chains studied.

America’s favorite quick-service restaurants revealed in new MFI study

In-N-Out Dominates All Customer Experience Categories

In-N-Out was not only the favorite QSR burger brand overall, but it 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 and Culver’s also consistently performed well, with Five Guys ranking second for food, speed of service and cleanliness, and Culver’s ranking second for atmosphere, friendliness and curb appeal. Results were based on the study participants’ most recent visit to a given restaurant.

America’s favorite quick-service restaurants revealed in new MFI study

Other Burger Category Highlights:

  • 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% 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

Sandwiches: Wawa Advances Four Spots to Unseat Firehouse Subs  

More and more, QSR brands are seeing competition from convenience stores and, for the first time in this study’s history, a convenience store was named America’s favorite spot to grab a sandwich.

Wawa is a 54-year-old chain with more than 790 convenience retail stores on the East Coast. It offers fresh food selections such as custom-prepared hoagies, freshly brewed coffee, hot breakfast sandwiches, specialty beverages and an assortment of soups and sides. Wawa rose four places to unseat the 2017 sandwich category winner, Firehouse Subs, which slipped 15 percentage points to land in second place this year. Jersey Mike’s was third, followed by Jimmy John’s, Jason’s Deli and McAlister’s Deli

America’s favorite quick-service restaurants revealed in new MFI study

Firehouse Subs Performs Well, Arby’s Lags

No single brand dominated across the eight customer experience attributes that Market Force studied, though Firehouse Subs took the top spot in two – food quality and atmosphere – and tied with Jersey Mike’s and Jimmy John’s for staff friendliness. Jason’s Deli came out on top for healthy options, while Jimmy John’s ranked highest for speed of service and overall cleanliness. Wawa was again No. 1 for value, five percentage points ahead of second place Subway. Arby’s was last in nearly all of the categories.

America’s favorite quick-service restaurants revealed in new MFI study

Other Sandwich Category Highlights:

  • 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% 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

Mexican: Chipotle Narrowly Hangs onto First Place 

Denver-based Chipotle, a chain that has weathered tough times in recent years, narrowly ranked first in the Mexican food category for the second consecutive year. El Pollo Loco overtook Moe’s Southwest Grill to rank in second place this year, while Qdoba ranked third and El Pollo Loco ranked fourth. Taco Bell landed at the bottom.

America’s favorite quick-service restaurants revealed in new MFI study

Chipotle Leads in Food, Del Taco in Value

Chipotle earned the top spot for many customer experience categories, including food quality, service speed, healthy options and cleanliness. It also tied with El Pollo for curb appeal. Del Taco was the value leader, while Moe’s Southwest Grill was found to have the friendliest staff, and Qdoba the best atmosphere. Taco Bell, Taco John’s and Taco Bueno ranked toward the bottom in most categories.

America’s favorite quick-service restaurants revealed in new MFI study

Other Mexican Food Category Highlights:

  • 37 percent visited a Mexican QSR chain at least five times in the previous 90 days
  • 41 percent dined in during their most recent visit, and 30% 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 

Pizza: Pizza Ranch is Big Cheese With Diners

Pizza Ranch, an Iowa-based chain with 200 locations in 13 states, took the No. 1 spot this year in the pizza category, a title Marco’s Pizza held in 2017. Papa Murphy’s again came in second, followed by Marco’s Pizza, Domino’s and Papa John’s.

America’s favorite quick-service restaurants revealed in new MFI study

Pizza Ranch, Papa Murphy’s Excel in Customer Experience

Pizza Ranch and Papa Murphy’s led in every customer experience category except value, which went to Little Caesar’s. Papa Murphy’s was No. 1 for food quality, healthy options and cleanliness, while Pizza Ranch was a clear winner in atmosphere and curb appeal and was also found to have the friendliest staff and fastest service speed, best atmosphere and curb appeal. Marco’s Pizza also performed well, landing in the top three in five key categories.

America’s favorite quick-service restaurants revealed in new MFI study

Other Pizza Category Highlights:

  • 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

Chicken: Chick-fil-A Rules Roost for Fourth Consecutive Year

Chick-fil-A is America’s favorite chicken chain for the fourth straight year with a 73% score. Raising Cane’s ranked second with 68%, Zaxby’s and El Pollo Loco tied for third with 51% each, Boston Market ranked third with 46% and Popeyes rounded out the top five with 42%. KFC landed at the bottom of the 10 chains studied.

America’s favorite quick-service restaurants revealed in new MFI study

Chick-fil-A Lauded for Food and Service

Once again, category-leader Chick-fil-A received the highest scores in every category except healthy options, a top ranking that went to El Pollo Loco for the third consecutive year. Raising Cane’s also performed well, landing in second place in seven of the eight categories. KFC was last in six categories, and Buffalo Wild Wings was rated lowest for value.

America’s favorite quick-service restaurants revealed in new MFI study

Other Chicken Category 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

More Using Tech to Place Orders

The use of technology by QSR guests to place their orders continues to steadily grow, with 39% reporting that they ordered their meals via smartphone app in the past 90 days, a significant increase from 2015 when just 11% reported doing so. Additionally, 28 percent used a kiosk and 27 percent used a tablet to place their order.

America’s favorite quick-service restaurants revealed in new MFI study

For the rankings, Market Force asked participants to rate their satisfaction with their most recent QSR experience, and their likelihood to refer that restaurant to others. The results were averaged to attain a Composite Loyalty Index score. Only chains that received at least 100 votes and representing 2% or more of votes were analyzed. 

The survey was conducted online in February 2018 across the United States. The pool of 11,487 respondents represented a cross-section of the four U.S. census regions. Fifty percent reported household incomes of more than $50,000 a year. Respondents’ ages ranged from 18 to over 65. Approximately 73% were women and 26% were men. 

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Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 12 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richardc@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter

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