VILLA PARK, Calif. -- Four pizza chains took top-10 spots in the third-annual Quick-Track Awards of Excellence, a major consumer research study on fast-food restaurants conducted by Sandelman & Associates.
The survey polled 68,600 fast-food users in 62 U.S. markets last year, and found that Americans prefer eating at specialized regional chains rather than national chains.
Pizza chains ranked in the top 10 were: Me'n Ed's Pizzeria (Fresno, Calif.), No. 4; Davanni's Pizza & Hot Hoagies (St. Louis Park, Minn.), No. 5, La Rosa's Pizzeria (Cincinnati, Ohio), No. 7, and Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza (Vancouver, Wash.), No. 8.
The survey found that chains with the highest food ratings were those that specialized in a limited menu of items, while providing friendly service and a comfortable atmosphere.
In-N-Out Burger, a 160-unit California-based family owned chain, grabbed top honors for the third year in a row.
The survey showed that in the past three months, 58 percent of In-N-Out's patrons rated their last occasion as "Excellent," on a five-point scale. In-N-Out's overall rating was seven percentage points higher than Chick-fil-A, the second-ranked chain.
In-N-Out also scored higher than all other chains on several key attributes, including taste of the food, quality of ingredients, friendliness/courtesy of employees and order accuracy. The chain came in second on three other key attributes: temperature of food, cleanliness and value for the money.
The remaining chains in the top ten included two fast-casual Mexican chains (Baja Fresh and Rubio's), and two specialized menu chains (Biscuitville [biscuits] and Bill Miller's [barbecue]). Each of these chains were rated "Excellent" by at least 44 percent of their recent users.
Major national chains show strengths
Although no major national chains made the top 10 again this year, some were rated highly on an overall basis and on specific attributes. Louisville, Ky.-based Papa John's was the top national chain in the pizza category, ranking 21st overall. Subway was the highest rated major national chain, with 40 percent of its users rating their last occasion as "Excellent."
What Patrons Like
The three most important factors to fast-food users in their selection of a quick-service chain to patronize are the cleanliness of the restaurant (81 percent rated this "extremely important"), taste or flavor of the food (78 percent), and order accuracy (73 percent).
The highest-rated chains for cleanliness were Baja Fresh, In-N-Out, and Papa Murphy's.
Taste/flavor of food was rated best at In-N-Out, Baja Fresh, and Skyline Chili.
For order accuracy, the top three rated chains were In-N-Out, Skyline Chili, and Papa Murphy's. Quality of ingredients is also highly important (65 percent) and was rated best at In-N-Out, Baja Fresh and Papa Murphy's.
Fast-casual drawing new users
Eight chains in the top 25 overall can be characterized as fast-casual: Baja Fresh (No. 3), Biscuitville (No. 6), Rubio's (No. 9), Bill Miller's (No. 10), Skyline Chili (No. 11), Schlotzsky's (No. 12), Quizno's (No. 15), and Boston Market (No. 16). Most of these chains improved their ranking from last year, while Bill Miller's and Skyline Chili showed up on the ratings list for the first time.
Each ranked chain also reported attracting traditional fast-food users, 37 percent of whom are visiting fast-casual restaurants at least once a month. Importantly, 54 percent of fast-food users said they are willing to pay a little more than at traditional fast-food restaurants for better food and nicer atmosphere at fast-casual restaurants.
Quick-Track is a syndicated research program conducted by Villa Park, Calif.-based Sandelman & Associates on a quarterly basis since 1988.