In-N-Out Burger named top QSR brand, convenience store wins favorite sandwich category

In-N-Out Burger named top QSR brand, convenience store wins favorite sandwich category

In-N-Out is customers' favorite QSR brand and burger chain, while convenience store, Wawa, serves the best fast food sandwiches, according to a large consumer study by Market Force. It surveyed 11,500 consumers, who ranked their favorite brands in the following categories:

  • Burger: In-N-Out
  • Sandwich: Wawa
  • Mexican: Chipotle
  • Pizza: Pizza Ranch
  • Chicken: Chick-fil-A

The study also focused on QSR dining habits and in-restaurant technology use and uncovered some interesting shifts taking place in the QSR space, according to Market Force Information Chief Customer Officer Brad Christian.

"In this year's study, we saw that scores on the Composite Loyalty Index for QSR brands across all categories declined from last year," Christian said. "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."  


California-based In-N-Out was the top choice for burgers for the second year, but the chain also received the highest scores across all QSR categories. 

Other burger brands falling in behind In-N-Out for burgers included Culver's in the No. 2 spot and Five Guys bringing up the third-place ranking.

On the flip side, Burger King, Jack in the Box and McDonald's ranked lowest among the 13 burger chains studied.  

For each brand, the study asked consumers to rank eight customer experiences, which included value, food quality, service speed, staff friendliness, cleanliness, atmosphere, healthy options and curb appeal. In those areas, Five Guys and Culver's consistently performed well with Five Guys ranking second for food, speed of service and cleanliness, and Culver's took second for atmosphere, friendliness and curb appeal. Results were based on the study participants' most recent visit to a given restaurant. 

The study also found these interesting factors affecting QSR activity:

  • Nearly half (46 percent) went to a limited-service brand at least five times in the previous 90 days.
  • 44 percent drove through for their orders.
  • 38 percent dined in.
  • 18 percent had youngsters in tow during their most recent visit.
  • Smashburger's loyalty program had highest overall awareness.
  • McDonald's had the highest mobile app awareness.

Wawa overtakes Firehouse in sandwich category

The increasing competition from convenience stores in QSR business showed up in this year's results with the 790-store East Coast Wawa store being selected as top sandwich brand for the first time in this study's history.

Wawa, which offers custom-prepared hoagies, freshly brewed coffee, hot breakfast sandwiches, specialty beverages and soups and sides, 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.

No single brand dominated across the eight customer experience attributes that Market Force studied, although 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. Likewise, Wawa emerged again in the value category as the top choice with Subway coming in second. Interestingly, Arby's and its well-publicized offbeat meat offerings of the last year ended up being last in nearly all of the categories.

Also of note in this category:

  • Take-out was big, with half reporting doing so on their most recent visit.
  • 12 percent brought children.
  • Highest loyalty card awareness went to Panera, at 78 percent recognition.
  • Highest mobile app awareness went to Wawa with 67 percent, up from 48 percent last year.

Mexican: Chipotle hangs on

Despite the turmoil that plagued Denver-based Chipotle over the last year, the chain narrowly ranked first in the Mexican food category for the second consecutive year. El Pollo Loco overtook Moe's Southwest Grill to rank second, while Qdoba was third. Taco Bell landed at the bottom.

Chipotle earned the top spot for food quality, service speed, healthy options and cleanliness and 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:

  • 41 percent dined in, while 30 percent drove through.
  • 22 percent brought children.
  • Qdoba has the highest loyalty program awareness.
  • Moe's Southwest Grill has the top mobile app awareness.

Pizza: Bread basket-based chain unseats Marco's

The 200-location, Iowa-based Pizza Ranch took the No. 1 spot this year in the pizza category, unseating Marco's Pizza, while take-and-bake chain, Papa Murphy's again came in second. Numbers 3, 4 and 5 in this category were Marco's Pizza, Domino's and Papa John's, respectively.

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 highlights included:

  • More than half ordered take-out (55%).
  • 21 percent brought children.
  • Top loyalty card awareness went to Pizza Ranch with an eye-popping 90 percent of customers aware of the program.
  • Domino's has the highest awareness for its mobile app at 67 percent.

Chicken winner remains unchanged

Chick-fil-A again won the chicken wars for the fourth year straight with a score of 73 percent. Raising Cane's was No. 2, with Zaxby's and El Pollo Loco tied for third with 51 percent each. Boston Market ranked third, and Popeyes rounded out the top five with 42 percent. KFC landed at the bottom of the 10 chains studied.

In fact, Chick-fil-A received the highest scores in every category except healthy options. For that category, the top choice was 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. Finally, the study found the following regarding the chicken customer and his or her behavior:

  • 39 percent drove through, nearly the same as the 33 percent of dine-in customers.
  • 20 percent had children in tow.
  • Top loyalty card awareness went to Buffalo Wild Wings at 44 percent.
  • Top mobile app awareness was Chick-fil-A with 55 percent, followed by El Pollo Loco with 45 percent.

 One last note on technology

The use of technology by QSR guests to place their orders continues to steadily grow, with 39 percent now reporting they ordered via smartphone app in the past 90 days. That compares with two years ago when a mere 11 percent reporting app ordering. Also, about 28 percent reported kiosk use, and 27 percent used tablets.


Photo: iStock


Topics: Burger/Steak/BBQ, Business Strategy and Profitability, Chicken, Customer Service / Experience, Drive-thru, Health & Nutrition, Interior Décor, Italian/Pizza, Loyalty Programs, Mobile Payments, Online / Mobile / Social, Operations Management, Research & Development / Innovation, Restaurant Design / Layout, Staffing & Training, Systems / Technology, Trends / Statistics

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