Quick-service giants McDonald's, Burger King, KFC and Taco Bell failed to impress Consumer Reports subscribers in the magazine's first-ever quick-service food chain ratings. Among the 53 chains included in the survey, fast casual, quick-service and pizza segments were represented.
In-N-Out Burger, Chick-fil-A, Jason's Deli, Firehouse Subs, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza all ranked the highest in their respective categories.
The survey was based on responses from 36,733 subscribers who made more than 98,000 visits to the 53 QSR chains.
"Chains like McDonald's and Taco Bell boast supersized values, but consumers don't necessarily think they offer much bang for the buck," said Tod Marks, senior projects editor, Consumer Reports. "Fifty-four percent of our subscribers cited low prices as a reason for picking a particular fast-food restaurant."
By contrast, Consumer Reports readers gave 21 of the 53 chains high marks for food. Among the favorites were:
- For burger fans, In-N-Out Burger rated highest of all 53 chains the survey with high scores for food, service, value and speed.
- Chipotle Mexican Grill was among the best of eight leading Mexican food chains, and earned high scores for food, politeness of staff and speed of service.
- Chick-fil-A outpaced the other chicken chains. With outstanding scores for politeness of staff, and high marks for food, value and speed of service, respondents rated it higher than seven other leading poultry stops.
- In the sub/sandwich category, readers preferred Jason's Deli and Firehouse Subs, giving them the highest marks for food and favorable scores for politeness of staff and speed of services among 11 chains.
- The standout for pizza was Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza, which has an unconventional concept where the patrons order a pizza to bake at home. It earned the highest marks for food, and exceptional scores for value, staff politeness and speed of service among the pizza chains.
Top 10 rankings in each category, by taste
In the Mexican food category, Chipotle edged out Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Moe's Southwest Grill and Baja Fresh Mexican Grill. Ranking sixth was Taco John's, followed by Del Taco and Taco Bell.
Firehouse Subs scored an "8" in taste for the sandwiches and subs category, followed by Jason's Deli, with a 7.8. Third was Jersey Mike's Subs, followed by Schlotzsky's, Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches, Potbelly Sandwich Shop, Togo's, McAlister's Deli, Quiznos, Subway and Arby's.
For chicken, Chick-fil-A earned a top score of 7.6, followed by Boston Market, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and El Pollo Loco, tied at second with a close 7.4. Zaxby's came in fourth, followed by Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits, Church's Chicken and KFC with a 6.6.
In the pizza category, Papa Murphy's earned a 7.8 among readers, followed by Round Table Pizza, Papa John's, Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza, CiCi's Pizza, Little Caesars and Sbarro with a 5.7.
Other key findings from the survey
The french fry test. Consumer reports put two sensory experts on the case to taste fries from six chains, including Wendy's, McDonald's, Burger King, Five Guys, Fuddruckers and KFC. The experts gave Wendy's new natural-cut fries with sea salt a slight edge over McDonald's and the others because they tasted "more potato-y." Burger King's fries scored the lowest.
Service with a smile. Readers in Austin, Texas; Dallas; Dayton, Ohio; Detroit; Green Bay, Mich.; Minneapolis; Portland, Ore.; and Sacramento, Calif. rated service the friendliest.
Diners want better food. Many restaurants scored higher for service — specifically, speed and politeness — than for food. At chains with the highest scores for food, 42 to 54 percent of patrons called the fare excellent, but at Burger King, KFC, McDonald's and Taco Bell, no more than 11 percent of patrons did.
Cheap food may not be a bargain. A slight majority — 54 percent — cited low prices as a reason for picking a specific restaurant. However, only 19 percent said they received "excellent" value for their money. Those that offered the best value for the money were In-N-Out Burger, Papa Murphy's and CiCi's Pizza. Those that ranked the lowest for value included Sbarro, Round Table Pizza and KFC, which was on the bottom.
KFC also ranked as one of the three slowest chains for food, along with Popeyes and Pizza Hut.
On the go. Sixty-two percent of survey respondents got their food to go. One in four stopped at the chain while traveling.
Consumers want healthy, but don't order healthy. When asked if they had eaten a healthful meal at their most recent visit to a chain, only 13 percent of those surveyed said yes, despite the increasing options of healthier fare. At pizza chains specifically, only 4 percent said yes. Not surprisingly, Subway had the most diet-conscious guests. Almost half of survey respondents who were customers at the chain said they had recently eaten a nutritious meal there.
Diners want a better experience. Whether they ordered cafeteria-style, at a counter, via a drive-thru, or through delivery, readers were much less pleased overall with quick-service restaurants than with casual full-service eateries such as Cracker Barrel, Outback Steakhouse and Red Lobster.
Frequent diners. Overall, survey respondents bought lunch or dinner at one of the featured chains four times a month on average. Thirteen percent visited these establishments 10 or more times a month.
Economy is still an issue. The economy may have affected frequency of visits, however. Twenty-two percent said they eat out less often than they used to because of financial concerns.
Other trends evident at chains include barbell pricing — mixing low-price choices with patented specialties and pricier items; upgraded facilities, including the addition of a second drive-thru; additional delivery options such as online ordering for pickup; expanded menus to include snacks and breakfast; reduced fat and sodium; and catering to food allergies and sensitivities such as offering gluten-free choices.
Alicia Kelso has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.