Commentary: When is a brand good enough?

By now, most people in the industry have probably digested the results of Consumer Reports magazine's rating of 53 "fast-food chains." I was extremely proud of the results for Firehouse Subs, given that we earned the highest score among all 53 brands for the taste of our main dishes; we topped the 11 sandwich/sub brands with an overall rating of 83 (bested among all 53 brands by only In-N-Out Burger and Papa Murphy's Pizza), and earned coveted "BEST" rating for two key attributes: Food Quality and Politeness of Staff (the other two aforementioned brands were the only other recipients of multiple "BEST" ratings).

When you look at the leaders across the categories featured in the report (Burgers, Mexican, Chicken, Sandwiches and Pizza), there are no surprises at the top of the rankings. Customers are extremely satisfied with these brands, and they have the sales and unit growth to show for it. Similarly, many of the brands that ranked near the bottom of each category have sales woes commensurate with the consumers' opinions of their brand (something that should come as no surprise).

What is intriguing, however, are the brands that are viewed as mediocre at best, yet manage to put together the right formula for growing their sales and traffic. I don't mean to slight my industry peers, but it does beg the question: just how good do you have to be in the eyes of the American consumer?

If you haven't read the August issue of Consumer Reports, I encourage you to pick up a copy and check it out. And when you are done reading the article, you may have one major take-away from it: For a restaurant brand to be successful, it only has to be just good enough at the right things.

For someone who has a passion for great food and exemplary service, it is almost painful to write those words. But perhaps there is a silver lining embedded within the results of the report. You may notice a shifting of the tide, where those brands that strive for a truly superior customer experience are being rewarded with greater patronage than they have in years past. This is, in a nutshell, the story of the Fast Casual segment. And I hope that if Consumer Reports repeats this study several years from now, the cream will continue to rise to the top, and with it, a larger share of the consumer's restaurant dollars.

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