Web Exclusive | September 2011 | By Daniel P. Smith

McD’s Loses Popularity to Subway

The results of Zagat’s annual fast food survey are in, including Best Burger, Best Coffee.

With the 63rd annual Emmys slated for Sunday, it seems appropriate that the quick-serve industry also celebrate its top awards—from Zagat.  

This year’s results of the National Fast Food Restaurant Survey showed that several quick-serve categories are becoming increasingly competitive and that nutrition is more on the minds of consumers.

“This is a rather comprehensive survey of the major brands,” says Zagat Survey CEO Tim Zagat, whose company was purchased by Google on September 8. He says the volume and regular dining frequency of respondents shares telling insight into where the top chains stand with consumers.

The survey covers 103 chains voted on by 6,064 diners.

The 2011 edition saw quick-service chains divided into three categories: large chains (up to 5,000 U.S. outlets); mega chains (5,000-plus units); and quick-refreshment chains (focusing on beverages, ice cream, and similar items).

For the third consecutive year, Subway claimed first-place honors among mega chains as Top Healthy Option, Top Service, and Most Popular. The brand’s mix of made-to-order sandwiches, health-inspired market positioning, and the consumer-friendly $5 Footlong campaign continue to resonate with diners, says Les Winograd, company spokesman.

“[The Zagat survey] is a validation of what we’ve been doing and what’s in our DNA. It means customers notice what separates us from the pack,” he says.

In the burger category, Five Guys and In-N-Out (No. 1 and No. 2, respectively) proved that the better-burger movement is here to stay. The two beat out Wendy’s, Burger King, and McDonald’s (Nos. 3, 4, and 5) for the Best Burger title.

Meanwhile, for Best Coffee, Starbucks earned top honors for the third consecutive year, outpacing Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Peet’s, and Caribou Coffee in what is becoming one of the most competitive menu categories.

“Some would argue that Starbucks was the only significant player in this space years ago, but McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts are going up strong against Starbucks,” Zagat says.

Chick-fil-A notched a victory for Best Grilled Chicken, and KFC won the Best Fried Chicken prize. Meanwhile, Dairy Queen won on milkshakes, Panera Bread on salads, and Ben & Jerry’s on ice cream.

Perhaps most surprising in the 2011 survey was the rise of healthy fro-yo chains Red Mango and Pinkberry.

Red Mango claimed the Best Smoothie/Frozen Yogurt title, while Pinkberry took No. 2. The latter company, meanwhile, was the top overall chain for the quick-refreshment category, and Red Mango was the top healthy option for the same category.

Subway claimed first-place honors among mega chains as Top Healthy Option, Top Service, and Most Popular.

“It’s absolutely clear from those figures that health consciousness is playing a greater role in the industry,” Zagat says. “When you have chains such as Red Mango and Pinkberry coming up so fast, it epitomizes the health-conscious trend that shows no signs of slowing.”

In addition to investigating consumer favorites, the annual survey asked diners about calorie counts on menus. More than two-thirds of respondents (69 percent) favored calorie-count displays, while 55 percent reported that such information has influenced their dining habits.

Jason’s Deli was recognized as the top healthy option for large chains.

Of course, no fast food survey would be complete without McDonald’s, which rose to the occasion in the Zagat survey.

Although ranked the No. 2 Most Popular, the Golden Arches captured top honors for its breakfast sandwiches, french fries, value menu, overall value, child friendliness, and drive thru.

“When people think fast food in America, they think McDonald’s … and the reality is that McDonald’s does a great job in so many different ways,” Zagat says.

Reaching 26 million customers each day at its U.S. outlets, McDonald’s has committed itself to value with a diverse menu line-up and ever-evolving Dollar Menu that crosses dayparts and menu categories.

Its Happy Meals have more options than ever—a welcome sight to both children and parents—while the double new McCafe format is proving to be a hit with value-conscious customers.

“We’re always driving to provide convenience, value, and great food, and it’s good to see we’re delivering on customer expectations,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling says.

Long sitting in the shadows of McDonald’s and often overlooked in the surging burger segment, Wendy’s still captured one of the survey’s most sought-after titles: Top Overall Rated mega chain.

The overall category represents a mix of food, facilities, and service ratings. Chick-fil-A took top honors in the large-chain category.

“It’s a humbling and gratifying honor because a lot of people had to voice their opinion, but we feel challenged and motivated at the same time,” Wendy’s spokesman Denny Lynch says.

“We’re working to become more hip and relevant … and to reinvigorate the brand in every aspect, a process begun with changes to our core menu items.”

Zagat says the survey’s results prove that the only consistency for the fast food industry is change—and that companies better be prepared to keep up, especially when it comes to things like nutrition.

“Like a silent film, the industry is tied to the tracks right now with a speeding train approaching,” Zagat says. “There’s a serious need for brands to wake up and respond to evolving consumer desires.”