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Market Force Releases Massive QSR Preferences Study


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


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.


Other Burger Category Highlights:

• 46% visited a burger fast-food or fast-casual restaurant at least five times in the previous 90 days

• 44% used the drive-thru during their most recent visit and 38% dined in

• 18% 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.


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, 5 percentage points ahead of second place Subway. Arby’s was last in nearly all of the categories.


Other Sandwich Category Highlights

• 32% 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% brought children on their most recent visit

• Panera led in loyalty card awareness—78% know they offer one

• Wawa once again has the highest mobile app awareness with 67%, up from 48% 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 ahead of second-place El Pollo Loco. Qdoba ranked third and Moe’s Southwest Grill ranked fourth. Taco Bell landed at the bottom of the chains studied.


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.


Other Mexican Food Category Highlights:

• 37% visited a Mexican QSR chain at least five times in the previous 90 days  

• 41% dined in during their most recent visit, and 30% used the drive-thru

• 22% brought children on their most recent visit

• Qdoba has the highest awareness for its loyalty program with 58%

• Moe’s Southwest Grill has the most awareness of its mobile app with 47%


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.


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.


Other Pizza Category Highlights:

• 28% visited a pizza chain at least five times in the previous 90 days

• Take out (55%) is still the most popular way to dine for pizza chain customers

• 21% brought children on their most recent visit

• Pizza Ranch led in loyalty card awareness—90% of customers know they offer one

• Domino’s has the highest awareness for its mobile app—67% 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 percent score. Raising Cane’s ranked second with 68 percent, Zaxby’s and El Pollo Loco tied for third with 51 percent each, Boston Market ranked third with 46 percent and Popeyes rounded out the top five with 42 percent. KFC landed at the bottom of the 10 chains studied.


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.


Other Chicken Category Highlights

• 31% visited a chicken chain at least five times in the previous 90 days

• The majority of customers opted for the drive-thru (39%), followed closely by those who chose to dine in the restaurant (33%)

• 20% dined with children on their most recent visit

• Buffalo Wild Wings led in loyalty card awareness—44% know they offer one

• Chick-fil-A has the highest mobile app awareness with 55%, followed by El Pollo Loco with 45%


More Using Tech to Place Orders

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



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 percent 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 percent were women and 26 percent were men.

For more information, visit http://www.marketforce.com/industries/restaurants.

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The latest news, opinions and commentary on what's happening in the franchise arena that could affect your business.

Laura MichaelsLaura Michaels is editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3210, or send story ideas to lmichaels@franchisetimes.com.
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Nicholas UptonNicholas Upton is restaurants editor at Franchise Times. He can be reached at 612.767.3226, or send story ideas to nupton@franchisetimes.com.
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